Delightful Philippines (1) – Around Coron (Palawan)
It's a steep, short climb from the coast onto a ridge, then down through forest andthere you are: Kayangan Lake. Locked in by towering black cliffs and with crystal clear water where fish and and crustacea are seen moving about from afar.
We are totally alone at this sunny, magic place.
We take off and tiptoe over to sit on a submarine rock. The water is rather warm. Nahlee, my Thai wife, successfully starts to chase fish.
I swim out into the lake. Around the corner and into the open, I spot other lagoons hemmed in by starkrocks, trees clinging to the show in incredible angles. The water tastes halfsoapy, half salty. Finally we climb back to the coast, soaking in more views ofoutlying rock islands.
Our boatman and his buddies await us.
On Coron Island
This is on Coron island, in the far north of the Philippines' remote Palawan province. Coron island has at least three spectacular lakes and eyewaterinig sand beaches too - but only a few very poor fishing settlements with I believe no electricity. So we can't stay on Coron island. Instead, we spend that week on nearby Busuanga island in a town that's also called Coron (like Coron island, but not on Coron island). Our lodge had brought us in contact with Mr Armandicillo, the boat man. He and his helper await us on Coron island's rocky coastal wall, smoking cigarettes with the fee collectors. The indigenous people (looking about like impoverished Filipinos) are taken care of by the Tagbanua Foundation, and the entry fee of roughly 5 USD goes to them.
And there lies our banka, that Philippines style outrigger boat, mooring in the turquoise water like a pontooned spider, ready to take us to yet another sexy seasidedestination.
Sure enough, soon we stop at the next picture perfect blue lagoon. But that's notall.
Through a hole in the towering jagged wall we swim into another, rock-walled lagoon full of fat blue water. Surrounded by sheer cliffs, and carried by a life vest from the boat, I could loll in the waters there for hours, getting comfortably numb, watching the swifts around the rocks, the silvery fish cruising the air on elegantly arched flight paths. It's at least as spectacular as around El Nido, 150 miles south (see my next Philippines article), and definitely less touristy.
Next to mefloats Nahlee, like me in a life vest. But for my South-East Asian wife the life vest isn't pure convenience - she can't swim at all, and so far in Thailand she hasn't had much interest to ever venture out into the waters. Only here, in this stunning blue dream fluid, she couldn't stop herself and follow me through the rock hole into secret lagoons.
Now she panicks.
"Hans! I have to go back. I cannot feel the ground under my feet. What if the swim-vest breaks?"
"It will not break."
"I go back!"
Later we open our lunch pack on Balun beach, a beautiful boutique strip of sand on Coron island's west face. It even sports a few bamboo chairs and a shadow roof - and the pleasure costs 2,5 USD per person, collected by the old couple who owns thebeach.
This is our very first time in the provincial Philippines and the encounter with local Filipino food rather unpleasant. Our lunch pack from the lodge has greasy omlette, stickily rice and rubbery fish. We had been warned, and Nahlee has brought her own chili, but still it's unpleasant.
I interview the boat man about the few very poor fishermen we saw in their ramshackle huts.
"They catch wild pigs and chicken in the island's interior", he says. "They get money from the Tagbanua Foundation, but they don't care for better health or homes - they just drink it up." According to the boat man, many of those indigenous people are illiterate. When they sell their fish to the traders of Busuanga island, they distinguish the bank notes by colors, not by the written numbers.
Many of their children don't go to school, says the boat man, because they are shy to appear with only torn clothing. Over on Culion island, there is a special school for them though, they can attend it when they reach 15 or 18 years of age.
"They also roast their own, fresh coffee," he says.
"Boatman, did you say they roast and brew their own fresh coffee?"
"Yes, they buy the beans on the market in Coron town, they can't live without their fresh coffee, and it's much better than Nescafé, I like it too."
"Boatman - we have to visit them tomorrow for breakfast!"
Like so many places in the Philippines, our lodge in Coron town only offers Nescafé and Lipton Tea in the morning. In the usual local style, they put a thermos with hot water on the table and then you brew your own instant coffee or bagged tea.
We have been fed up with this right after the first morning. We both yearn for a potent caffeine fix. Yes, Euro life has even turned my bronze almond eyed spouse into a caffeine addict.
"Boatman, I'll pay any price to visit those locals who brew their own coffee!"
He agrees to take us there next morning. On that next boat outing, he will also provide the lunch himself, so we don't have to chew on another lunch pack from the lodge. Actually, we also don't like the lodge's breakfast food (dried dangit fish on rice for Nahlee, oily mushroom omlet for me, accompanied by the ever-repeating, broken Julio Iglesias CD). So we also order breakfast from the boat man, to be taken smack on the beach together with our locally brewed, feverishly anticipated caffeine whip. I also ask Mr Armandicillo to bring fresh milk for the coffee. He tries to convince me that milk isn't needed, but I insist. He asks for 17 USD advance to buy all food including coffee beans.
Ok so. He will pick us up next morning at 6 am.
Next morning at 5.50 am my cell phone rings with a text message:
Boat man Coron
Good morning sir.
I wait for you here
at the lodge door.
See you soon.
Aboard a tricycle (tuktuk) we roar down to the pier. 30 boating minutes from Coron townon Busuanga island over to Coron island, and we reach an ugly muddy sand beachwith a decreipit shack. Huge cliffs block the morning sun. An old, toothless couple approaches first. The boat man produces the coffee beans and they jump into action. They avoid any eye contact with me and even with Nahlee, who is constantly taken for a Filipina here.
A young man - "he can read", the boat man boasts proudly - does most of the work. He roasts the beans on a pan over the open fire. Nahlee and I watch closely, just to inhale that smell. He pours a lot of sugar right over the roasting coffee beans and keeps stirring to receive a thick black beans caramelsauce. This petrifies into a pitch black block of bitumen and is ground in a wooden mortar. The mortar base has already been heated over the fire to remove humidity. The powder travels into a pot with water, boiling over the open fire.
Meanwhile the boat helper has built up our breakfast on a wooden board in the sand: rice,fish, salad, drinking water, fruit.
And now -the first steaming hot coffee goes into the cups and into our mouths! Bitter-sweet delirium!
The boatman grabs a coffee, lights a cigarette and plants himself firmly into the sand. "Fresh coffee and cigarette", he jubilees into the crystal clear Palawan morning air - "my kind of breakfast!"
"And what great islands view to boot", I chime in. But that doesn't interest the boat man at all.
The local family drinks their coffee from huge plastic jugs holding at least half a liter. They refuse to take some of our delicious breakfast food. But they happily accept the sugary pastries the boat man selected for them in Coron town on our behalf. Before departing, Nahlee walks around and distributes small change among the family.
Our next stop is Sangat Island, uninhabited except for one midrange bungalow business.The uninviting cottages start from 65 USD/night with full board. As we step on land a resort manager hurries by.
"But you may not walk on the resort's lawn and around the bungalows," he declares with a grim face. "You can walk on the sand beach only!"
This means we will get no shadow. It's 11.30 a.m.
"Oh", I say, "this means we could not reach your restaurant. Can't we go to your restaurant?"
"Oh, sure you can go to our restaurant and enjoy lunch there", he chirps.
As we stroll along the water line, Nahlee and I discuss the coffee we had with the locals.
"That was so delicious", she raves.
"Yes", I say - "but funny, I completely forgot to put the milk!"
Yes, I had had a hard time to get the boat man to buy fresh milk, and I saw the milk container in his plastic bag. But then, on the beach, I didn't ask for it. I guess as the coffee contained so much sugar I didn't feel the need for milk. Just as the boat man had said, but I had refused to believe.
Our tiny banka boat had been rocking hard on the waves and the wind seems to be getting stronger every minute. "We can't continue to Calumbuyan island", announces the boat man now. So we will find shelter at an empty beach around Sangat for another home made lunch and then return to our base at Coron town on Busuanga island.
On the way around Sangat island we pass a pearl farm where a sign declares a 10 knots speed limit. Then we land at Gun Boat Beach. A Japanese war ship had been bombed down here by US planes at the end ofWW II; many Japanese soldiers must have died. It's a prime dive site now and actually a dive boat moors there right now, about 100 meters from our beac hpost. We hear the oxygene bottles hissing.
I don't tell Nahlee about the dead soldiers, as my Thai wife might worry about ghosts.
But then, a big sign announces "GUN BOAT ".
"Why is that called GUN BOAT", asks Nahlee with a suspecting voice?
"Just a name, dear."
Over the fire, our boat man produces another great meal. The fish is filled with tamarind leaves picked right there, then grilled. The veggies get cooked, not fried, just as we requested. Rice and salad again. And Nahlee shrieks with joy- the boat man brought chilis, and of the best variety.
With a half sour face Mr Armandicillo produces the milk box: "You ordered this for the morning coffee, but I told you you don't need it."
"Why, I will drink it after lunch, that's great too. Thanks for bringing!"
This food is so much better than the hotel's lunch pack - simple, fresh, crisp, healthy, delightful. We finish it off with oranges and, of course, Nestlé Fresh All-Natural Cow's Milk with a 55 pesos price sticker from Coron town market. Then we snore away in tree shadow. On later days in this culinary waste land the Philippines we ponder booking more boat trips with Mr Armandicillo just to get a reasonable lunch made.
As it's still very windy we head for a coastal return route - through a channel cut into the mangroves forest. In this narrow lane the water is only knee deep. The boat helper has to jump out and drag us, while the boss pokes the ground with a bamboo pole. Then we meet another boat that got stuck and both bankas get all entangled with their outrigger planks. They have to heave the boats around. Finally, out of the channel and close to the coast, but in more open water, we gain speed again. The wind still blows so strong that we get thoroughly soaked.The boat man gestures to keep our bags with camera and money in the dry machineroom.
We don't go straight back to town and lodge. Two miles on is the public Makinit hot springs pool with a pier out into the sea. So around five pm, after a fantastic daytrip, the boat man drops us right at the hot springs. These are slightly seedy, the underwater stone seats overgrown by slimey greenery. But you hang out there in the open in hot water and watch the sun go down between hills and sea.
Those boattrip days are sensual days. Rocking through splashy water, salty wind and blazing sun, swimming in fresh and salt water, sleeping and eating fresh foodin the sand, chilling in hot springs in all natural surroundings until after dark. We return home by tricycle (tuktuk), but our lodge beds are useless wobbly sags. I join Nahlee under the hot shower and carry on what had started at the hot spring anyway.
After three nights in Manila and a flight on a rambling 19 seater, remote Coron town was our first provincial destination in the Philippines.
On a reddish hill over town, huge white "Coron" letters suggest you arrived at Hollywood-in-the-Phils. But friendly little Coron is no attraction in itself. It serves mostly as a launch pad for boat or land excursions.
So we first wanted to take a central guesthouse next to market and harbor, like the US run SeaDive built right over the water. But the Lonely Planet guide book had warned that SeaDive was plagued by karaoke from one side and had no moscito screens on the windows.
Instead of the central option, we decided on a place some blocks away from the action, also mentioned in the guide book. The Lonely Planet had not warned, though, that our own place, the one we chose instead of SeaDive, sits next to a gamecock farm. It's a large grassy farm shaded by trees, and, Philippines-style, each single rooster proudly occupies its own generous A-frame hut, furiously crowing away.
Weeks earlier, in an extended e-mail-exchange, we had arranged the stay at our lodge and yes, when we arrive we get the room exactly to our wishes (high floor, away from the street). We may well have the only lodge in town run by Filipinos, not Westerners. The owner family is somewhat dignified and reserved. Years ago even president Gloria Acapulco Arroyo visited this modest lodge, when a fishing treaty was signed there. The newspaper reports still hang in the tiny bamboo lobby. "The house was so full of bureaucrats and security", the landlady sighs: "Me and even the grandchildren had to wear badges just toget into our own kitchen!"
Anyway, we would like to hear from helpful westerners how to explore the area. So we walk down to the US run SeaDive resort. Our own guest house offers boat trips only for the two of us, but we hope to find something cheaper with a group. The stroll through the small town is not unpleasant, with cheering kids in the sidestreets. Later we discover that we can always flag down a tricycle (tuktuk), which sometimes means joining other passengers. Within town, that's a fixed six pesos (17 US cents).
So on ourfirst afternoon in town - and our first afternoon in provincial Philippines as well - we stroll down to SeaDive hotel and restaurant. We learn that there are no organized island hopping trips in all of Coron. We have to book a boatman on our own. But we can join them very economically on a diving trip that other customers had booked for the next day.
While I test a freshly squeezed mango juice at SeaDive, Nahlee inspects the nearby market. She comes back deeply disappointed. "They sell grilled fish", Nahlee reports, "but it's already packed in plastic bags". Nahlee also observed that "people here don't like vegetables". What little green stuff they had was, according to her, "at least a month old". Our permanent Philippines food crisis materializes there and then and lingers until many weeks later at Manila International's departure gate.
According to the Lonely Planet and many travel web sites, French run Bistro Coron serves Coron town's best food. The Bistro looks cosy, but opens onto the main roadwhere noisy tricycles roar past every other second. So for our first dinner in town we visit SeaDive again, on a breezy platform right over the water.
The cabbage soup tastes like foul water. My whole crab consists of only shell, there's almost no meat inside.
"This crab staid in a water cage for a month, without any food", analyses my walky-talking foodipedia wife.
"There is no more meat left. No Thai person would accept such a crab in anyrestaurant. Never. Ever."
The LonelyPlanet had warned that SeaDive gets karaoke noise from one side, but - development - wailing actually comes from both north and south. Nahlee looks for a sign to the toilet. Only after a while I conclude that the "CR" sign on one door means "comfort rooms", i.e. toilet. So even in a US run business catering to foreigners they use this Philippines word. Later we learn that most Filipinos just say "CR" when referring to the restrooms.
Next morning we set out with the SeaDive's banka boat for Coron island. With us are a diving tourist couple, SeaDive's diving instructor Helen, and two local boatmen. We walk across another ridge to see impressive Barracuda Lake. Then back onto the boat for lunch. The fish has not been gilled, so it's a bloody mess on our plastic plates. After that we get a San Miguel beer.
The youngSwiss divers, poking in their bloody fish-rice-veggies, rave about the wreckdiving that's a big attraction around Coron. US planes have bombed a whole number of Japanese ships here at the end of WW II.
"Oneship has a huge bomb crater", beams the guy.
"Yes", jubilees his girl friend, "and you dive right through there into the huge machine room".
They seem to talk about a PC game, a phantasy movie. Hundreds or thousands of people died there in a war, but for them it's cheerful holiday fun.
Now after one dinner and one boat trip with SeaDive we know we have to look for other boat trip offers and for other dinner locations. Fortunately, from the SeaDive pier we had spotted another restaurant on a pier. This turns out to be LaSirenetta. It's pricey, but they really care for delightful service and good food, with mediterranean and north African dishes, freshly made pita bread (something not oily!) and their decidedly easy going signature drink, Frozen Margerita with fruit, for example with the lime-like dalandan or with guava. La Sirenetta's breezy dinner platform with bar over the water is hands down Coron's best place to kick back after a hot day of island hopping or motorcycle bouncing.
I only come back to SeaDive for its relatively reasonable internet service. I forget the USB stick there and when I return two days later, the friendly Filipina caretaker has kept it for me in the drawer.
In his tiny motorcycle rental shop, we visit talkative Mr Boyet. He has a useful handdrawn map of Busuanga island and we bow over it for half an hour. Nahlee can't believe how guys can talk so long over a map and walks off to the market. When she returns we are still discussing difficult gradients and road closures.
At 12 USD per day, the 125 ccm bike costs 100 percent more than in Thailand or Cambodia. Equally, the vehicle is also 100 percent more trashy than offers on the SEAsian mainland. The horn works bad, indicators and gear indicator don't work atall.
The fuel gauge doesn't wince either.
"Of course they break the fuel gauge as soon as possible", shrugs my evermarket-savvy Nahlee. "Thus you stupid scared westerners buy too much gasoline which they fill into their private machines in the evening."
Only upon return we notice that Mr Boyet actually has much better motorcycles available. When we tell him this he beams and says proudly: "Yes, and you would get them for the same price."
There is another experience that would return on many later motorcycle rentals.
"Have you ever driven a motorcycle in the Philippines before", Mr Boyet asks?
So he knows we have no idea about driving around poor, potholed, unsealed roads full of water buffaloes, chicken, children, slow trucks and fast Enduros. No need to tell them you've been all over Thailand and Indochina, from northern Laos to southern Vietnam, on many a desparate road by motorcycle - they won't believe that you could handle one single road in the Phils.
Mr Boyet rolls his eyes and after all the map talk he now starts to explain the use ofthe motorcycle brakes under a variety of conditions (slippery/downhill/coconuttree ahead). Nahlee rolls her eyes and starts to wonder if we ever make it out of town.
Three miles out of Coron town the asphalt road changes to red dirt and gravel. There are a few bridges with a remarkable sign:
WARNING!! Weak bridge!! Please unloadpassengers.
We pass scenic lush green rice fields, impressive views points, coastal mangrove forests, sleepy idyllic rural villages. Kids, sometimes invisible, cheer us HELLOOOOO, and munching water buffaloes ply their lazy trade. The gravel road is usually void of any traffic, except for the odd oxcart without wheels (yes, the cart rests on poles grinding over the ground, not on wheels).
Now this sounds like pure pothole research country, perfect for the Asian hinterlands explorer, and it's definitely more green and scenic than Thailand's Isaan or some parts of Cambodia or Laos.
Purepothole research country? Or maybe not?
Compared to rural Thailand or southern Vietnam, the village people on Busuanga lack that friendly, energetic curiosity; they don't care to interview you, they don't invite for young coconut or iced water. So contacts aren't that easy. They are friendly, yes, and they'd smile when you smile first - but there's none of that powerful, self-confident friendliness that Thailand's Isaan people pour allover you.
And we do miss snack stalls serving as meeting places. The villages we pass on our two Busuanga motorcycle trips boast a few meagre auntie shops, usually a wood shack with a counter behind rusted chicken wire. But these establishments don't offer a bank to sit and they don't sell cold coke or hot soup. There is no chance to plant yourself, expose yourself and see who and what might happen to you.
Okay, sometimes there is. Around 2 p.m. we reach the breathtaking, miles long and completely undeveloped sand beach of Marcilla village. Looking for a shady place to stay, we pass three young guys drinking whatever from a white canister. They gesture us to join, but we decline politely. A little further on a friendly fisherman invites us to jump into his rowing boat for an outing - but it's way too hot.
Finally we find shadow and sleep under mangrove trees, just meters from the water. This makes us free lunch for sand flies, nik-niks and other bugs I never encountered on the Southeast-Asian mainland. Only days later we develop painfully itchy wounds lasting for weeks. Because of their size, the locals call this wounds "pizzas".
On the way back to Coron town I photograph some rice fields from all angles. I wade into the mud and get rice saplings and a young water buffalo up close.
I nearly drown in the rice field mud, but drag myself out and squelch back to Nahlee who is working on a mango in the shadow. I explain my heroic artistic efforts to the Thai spouse and that it's nice to have some scenic shots of the world's most important staple food, these essential, archaic rice fields, especially so given the current rice price hike, and that Getty and Corbis would soon be all over me. One by one, I show her the pics on the LCD, proudly zoom in, awaiting her admiring comment.
My Asian wife shrugs.
"That's useless grass you snapped."
* * *
See Slide Show. or contact me at hansmeiermail at gmail dot com
* * * * *
Published on 7/8/08