There was no way that I would finish this world trip without a visit to the foreign continent where I have travelled the most. I spent 5 months there on my 2006 trip and returned nearly every year since then. Home to some of the nicest people in the world and definitely the best food. You probably guessed it, I’m talking about Asia. As we were flying from Australia to Europe a stop in one of the countries of South East Asia is almost mandatory. A look on the map and a quick calculation of the remaining miles on our ‘round the world’ ticket gave us a couple of options. Eventually we chose to fly to the Philippines, the one country in South East Asia (SEA), I had not visited yet.
The Philippines are probably the least visited country of SEA. It does not attract the crowds that Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia or Vietnam attracts. The people who do come here are still mostly divers or sex tourists. We arrived from Australia in Manila the capital of the Philippines and the capital of sleaze and ground zero for sex tourism. Our hotel had a strict ‘no sex tourist’ policy. But when the next day we were buying our bus tickets in the lobby of a neighbouring hotel, I saw all these old guys coming down the stairs with very young and beautiful Filipino girls. I had seen this before in Thailand and was kind of expecting to see it here. Caro was really shocked when I pointed some of these ‘gentlemen’ out to her and said that these young girls were probably not their wives. On the boat to Puerto Galera, an Australian guy started a conversation with us. After two sentences I knew he would never become my friend and I moved away. But Caro thought it would be impolite to break off conversation so abruptly (I love her a lot but sometimes she’s just too sociable) and kept talking to him. I sat back and watched this idiot trying to impress her with his macho stories of travel in the Philippines: ‘getting drunk with my mates’ and ‘partying with the girls’. Had he seen or visited something interesting? Not really but he did get “smashed” every night. I quickly called her over to have a look at something (I don’t even remember what but it was definitely more interesting than the nonsense the Ozzie guy was talking).
All of that was not really a nice introduction to the country so we hoped Puerto Galera would be better. It wasn’t really… More of the same: girlie bars and loud drunk Aussie dudes. But luckily we found a nice place to stay away from these guys. And we would be spending most of our time underwater anyway. As Caro only had a couple of days left before flying home we had looked at several places to go diving for but most of these places were too far from Manila and we were too late to find flights, so we settled for Puerto Galera which could be reached by bus. In the end it was not a bad choice and we had a number of really good dives. Caro finally got to see the turtle she had been looking for all this trip. We had been in so many places where we were supposed to see them but somehow they had evaded us each time.
So when on one of our dives I saw one swimming in front of us, I knew someone was going to be happy. I had never seen someone ‘dance for joy’ underwater before but I promise it was a great sight… even better than the turtle itself. Where is that underwater camera when you need it! Apart from the turtle we got to see a lot of other sea life: big schools of tuna, jacks and barracuda, sweet lip groupers, a huge sea snake, etc. The corals were pretty intense too. On one of the dives we went looking for some ‘macro life’ (small stuff). I was not really enthusiastic as I don’t get excited by looking at sea weed and shrimps but it also turned out to be a great dive with loads of small critters. The dive guides were really excited as we saw an apparently very rare species. Even though it was not bigger than 3 cm, it looked cool and had a great name: the “flamboyant cuttle fish”. Sounds a bit like a scouts totem now that I think about it.
Our last night in Puerto Galeras was my 35th birthday and Caro had some nice surprises in store. While we were having dinner all of a sudden the cover band (a quintessential Filipino cultural experience) suddenly broke into the ’happy birthday’ song and the kitchen staff appeared with a huge blue (yes blue cakes are big in the Philippines) birthday cake. It looked strange but tasted sweet! That same night was also our last night together on the trip. Caro had to go back to work and I would continue alone for another 3 weeks. After being together 24/7 for 4,5 months it felt really strange that we would go separated ways. It have been 4,5 absolutely great months and I would not have traded it for anything in the world.
The next day we went back to Manila from where Caro would fly home and I would take a night bus to the south of the main island Luzon. There I would have another shot at seeing a whale shark. The whale shark is the biggest fish on the planet growing to 16m and larger. These huge sharks feed only on plankton which explains their reputation as ‘gentle giants’. Until now I had been rather unlucky with seeing these fellows. I had been in a couple of whale shark hot spots but they did never show themselves.
My first try was more than 10 years ago in Mexico where I went searching for two days…none to be found. While I was taking my diving certification in Thailand a couple of them were around and nearly everybody saw them on one of their dives except for our dive group. And just last year in Mozambique we spent a couple of hours searching for them between two dives. It was a very rough sea and I got as seasick as one can get but not a trace of the giants. It didn’t look too good this time either. The ‘top season’ had ended a couple of weeks earlier and it had been a very ‘calm’ season. Where 5 years ago up to 100 whale sharks inhabited the area from March to April, the number had been declining each year and this year it was estimated that not more than 20 animals had been around. The WWF attributes this decline to a decline in plank ton caused by global warming. When I registered for the trip, I found out that they had not seen any whale sharks for 3 days but they told me to come back the next day early morning when chances were best. So the next morning at 7am I got on small boat with 5 other people (most of them coming back for a second try). We got a briefing by the ‘Butanding (local name for whale shark) interaction officer’ (BIO) and we set off for a 3 hour cruise. The BIO explained that conditions were good as it was sunny and the currents were a lot smaller than the last days. The sunny weather is vital as these giants often swim about 2m beneath the surface and the only way they can be spotted in such a case is by their reflection at the surface. So the spotters are not really looking for fins but rather for moving shadows.
After cruising really slowly for about 45 min, all of a sudden our boat made a U turn and started going at full speed towards one of the other 2 boats that were on the look-out. When we got there we didn’t really notice anything. All the spotters were staring hard at the water and all of sudden our BIO saw something and told us to get ready. 10 seconds later about 15 people jumped in the water. It was one big chaos with some people jumping on top of each other or pushing and pulling each other to get ahead. Somehow I could get away from the pack and the first thing I saw when I looked down was this huge dark thing swimming 5-6 m below me. I started swimming as fast as I could to catch up and tried to dive to have a better look. But because I was so excited I didn’t really take a big breath so I found myself 4-5m deep with a great view of the shark but without air in my lungs. Not very practical. We got to follow the shark for about a minute more before it dove a bit deeper and swam off. Finally I had seen the gentle giant but it had been a bit of chaotic first meeting. Not to worry because only 10 minutes later another one was spotted. This time I didn’t jump in with the rest but waited on the boat till I could see where it was swimming and then tried to get in the water in front of it. That turned out to be a great idea.
This one was swimming a lot closer to the surface and I got to see the giant up close as it came towards me and swam under me. Really spectacular and a lot more relax than the previous time. And it was not over yet because we even spotted a third one a bit later. This time a lot of people didn’t even bother to go in the water anymore (or were too exhausted to keep up ) so it was really great to swim along it in a much more relaxed atmosphere. It looked a lot more like the slow underwater ballet that I had seen in documentaries. After that a shark was spotted a couple of times more but it disappeared before we could get near . But I guess nobody was really sad about that because what a great morning we had!
Staying in the small town of Donsol and the provincial city of Legazpi was a relief compared to the sleaze and filth of Manila. People don’t get to see too many foreign travellers and seem rather surprised if they meet one. I got stared at quite a lot but when I smiled or winked at these people, I got the biggest possible smile back. In Donsol nearly every person I met, asked me if I had seen the whale shark and they were almost happier than me when I told them we had spotted three.
My next destination, the city of Legazpi is totally dominated by the gorgeous Mt Mayon. Mt Mayon is often being quoted as the most perfect/beautiful volcano in the world. I must agree it is a beauty. Of all volcanoes we have seen this one has definitely the most perfect ‘cone’ shape and it beautifully situated by the sea with rice paddies on its lower flanks. But this is no sleeping beauty. Just a week before I got there, 8 hikers died when they were hit by rocks from an eruption that happened completely out of the blue. In the nineties about 1000 people died from mudslides after a typhoon hit the region right after an eruption. I visited a site where in the 19th century 1500 people had died when the church where they took shelter had been hit by huge rocks and lava flows. Today only the tower of the church is still intact.
My guidebook had warned me that May is the climax of the hot season and boy did I feel that! It reminded me of my time in Singapore and Malaysia 7 years ago. Back then I described it as ‘three t shirts/ day weather’ and at least 4 showers/day (morning, noon, evening and in the middle of the night). The 35° are not the worst but the combination with humidity of up to 95% is just sucking all energy away. While walking in the concrete jungle of the Filipino cities I had to run for cover in the air conditioned malls to prevent my brains from cooking. It was time to move to higher ground and more moderate temperatures in the ‘Cordillera’ in the north of the main Island. My first stop was the not so eventful town of Baguio. A university town that has grown way too fast but it is spectacular to see how the city is creeping further into the surrounding hills. Next up was the “tranquil and peaceful village of Sagada” (dixit the guidebook). Only while I was there it was being overrun by Filipino students enjoying the last weeks of their summer holidays. The main attraction here is hiking and caving. The latter I left to the Filipino students as I’m really not into exploring caves . I did however visit the ‘burial cave’. A big cave where at the entrance hundreds of coffins (some up to 500 years old) can be found with the remains of villagers. Some of the coffins are partly open and one can see the skeletons lying in foetal position in the coffin. Only the privileged can be ‘buried’ in this place “with direct access to the next world”. For those that cannot be buried here, there is still the option of a ‘hanging coffin’. All around town there are coffins suspended from the surrounding cliffs. As these wooden coffins tend to suffer from the wear and tear of the weather some of them have fallen down. In one place you could clearly see that a coffin’s bottom had collapsed as the skeleton including the skull was lying on top of the coffin that was hanging beneath it.
On this trip we have been very lucky with realizing our plans. We have seen and done nearly everything we had planned. But you can’t win them all and sometime it had to go wrong. From Sagada I wanted to go further north to the Kalinga province to go trekking among some of the local tribes that still live according to traditions that are centuries old. I was told that one can still meet the people with the traditional tattoos and if lucky even see a tattoo artist in action (no mom I wasn’t planning on getting one there). There are also still some ‘retired’ head hunters around that you can meet. It sounded really interesting but a guide is really mandatory. The tribal feeling is still really strong here and even though the last reported case of head hunting was in the 1950’s, there are rumours abound about much more recent cases. Tribal warfare these days however manifests itself in shootings rather than cutting off heads. And even though they do not target travellers, it’s better not to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. So going out there without a guide is a ‘big No No’. However it’s a place not many travellers go and so not many guides are available. I had been trying to arrange guides from the other places I went but without luck. So I decided to head over there and try to find one in town. It turned out to be one of ‘those’ trips. A bus crammed full of people on a road that is ravaged by landslides, the kid next to me throwing up his breakfast rice on my pants, the worst guesthouse in the country charging double the price of its nice counterparts in other towns, all restaurants closed. But the thing that bothered me the most was that there were no guides available. I had the name of a guide and asked nearly everyone in town about him but could not track him down. Eventually I found his sister and we tried to call him but without luck. We went to his house but nobody was home. The next day I gave it one more try to find a guide but eventually jumped back on a ‘bus’ to where I had come from. Bummer! But there are some more nice things to do in the north so I headed straight to Ifugao province.
The Ifugao province is mainly known for its monumental and Unesco recognized rice terraces. So you think you’ve already seen rice terraces in Vietnam, Thailand or Bali. Well think again because compared to what I saw in Ifugao all the others turn out very pale. These rice terraces are bigger in surface ( about 10,000 square kilometre), higher (at 1500m and more) and on much steeper slopes than anywhere in the world. Whole flanks and ridges of mountains and complete hills have been carved out to accommodate the rice cultivation. In some places these terraces are 2000 or more years old and were built by hand with only very basic instruments. A truly herculean task and rightly so one of the classic ‘wonders of the world’. For more than 2000 years the terraces have been passed on from one generation to another. In fact today the cultivation of the rice and maintenance of the terraces is still done in the same way as 2000 years ago. To make up for the missed trekking in Kalinga, I decided to go on a 3 day trek here through some remote valleys to the town of Batad (one of the most famous examples of these monumental terraces). I got myself a guide (plenty of them to choose from this time) and spent a really nice 3 days hiking. We visited and slept in a couple of villages where the modern world is only getting a grip very slowly. One can see little ladies in their late 80’s with their backs completely bent from working in the rice fields for so many decades but still planting and harvesting rice. In one of the little towns the guide knew that there was still one lady with the traditional tattoos (the ones that I had wanted to see in the Kalinga region). We went to pay her a visit and it turned out to be a real cool encounter. She was very happy to tell us about her tattoos. She was now around 90 years old and had gotten her tattoos when she was 12 years old. She had two ‘full sleeves’ (complete arm tattoo) and also her hands and part of her legs were tattooed. Her arms were done in one session of 11 hours. Did it hurt I wanted to know? “Not that I can remember, I was very tired in the end and had 3 days of fever after it but that was all”. When I asked her why she got the tattoos she answered something and all the men that were listening burst into laughter. My guide translated her answer as “I got it because in those days the guys did not look at your face when they were looking for a wife, they looked at your tattoos”. I didn’t really get why this was so funny until afterwards one of the guys told me that my guide had censured her answer a bit. In fact she had said that “ the guys didn’t look at her boobs or bum but at her tattoos when they were looking for a wife”. We showed her my tattoo and she said that in her time “they didn’t have enough ink to make something like that”. When I asked her if I would have stood a chance with her with a tattoo like mine, she grabbed my hand and pointed to my wrist and told me that I would at least need to extend it to there to have any chance to marry her…
After this really nice time in the Cordillera, I was not looking forward to going back to Manila for my last days in the Philippines before flying to my final destination on this trip: Bangkok.