I just spent two weeks in the Philippines, a place The Department of State deems dangerous and warns that "U.S. citizens should continue to exercise extreme caution if travelling to certain regions and cities." Here's why it wasn't scary, and why you should plan to island-hop as soon as possible!
A fish-your-own dinner was one of our first (positive) experiences in the Philippines.
I was four beers deep when the woman on the intercom announced that our much-delayed flight from Manila to Davao would, finally, be boarding. Sitting in a 100-foot square waiting room with 500 other people -- all of whom were waiting for delayed flights -- the air was dense with the smell of food, sweat and the gaseous repercussions of my hasty choice to drink two (more) cans of San Miguel.
We had flown in from Tokyo five hours earlier. That flight, which had stopped in Taipei, was uneventful at best. But when we hit the ground for the first time in the Philippines, everything suddenly changed. Where there was once order, there was chaos. Where lines had formed in other airports, there was now a mass of people pushing their way forward, clearly upset that their flight had been cancelled, delayed or was somewhere in between.
So here I sat, drinking a sweaty can of crap beer as fast as I could, digging through my pockets to make sure I had the thin sheet of receipt paper that was supposed to serve as my boarding pass. How the hell did I end up here, in the most densely populated domestic airport in the Philippines, perhaps the world, waiting for yet another flight to an equally overwhelmed airport?
Although the US government warns against visiting, looks can be deceiving in the Philippines.
I'm not going to dig through Wikipedia and regurgitate a bunch of facts about the Philippines in order to "paint a better picture" of this place for you. What you need to know, and what I hope to portray to you, is just how different this place is from the rest of Southeast Asia. How, unlike its neighbours on all sides, there is no substantial tourism industry to speak of. Or the fact that English is not only common, but appreciated, as so many of its citizens have, or will, make their way to America in search of a different life.
Instead of giving you an exact itinerary, I plan to suggest some places to go, what you should do, things to eat and things to avoid, as well as why -- even though the US government tells us to avoid a lot of it -- the Philippines is a safe place to explore, even on a motorcycle.
The homemade trike-bike is a common site in many cities of the Philippines.
Get Out Of Manila and Don't Fly Air Asia
We made the mistake of booking our first island hop, a short trip from Manila to Davao City, with Air Asia. When we arrived in Manila's international terminal, all seemed normal. Your typical, albeit small, international airport. We waited for our waterproof duffle, which was packed full of clothes and two motorcycle helmets, and then hopped a shuttle to the domestic terminal, which was on the other side of the air field.
Cramped and hot as hell, the shuttle ran full speed across the runway, dropped the first batch of passengers off and then pulled up to what I can only describe as a loading dock. The doors swung open, and the driver sent us on our way. With a bloated duffle bag in one hand and backpacks strapped tightly to our backs, we stood -- dumbfounded -- trying to figure out what happens next.
Luckily, a young man wearing a safety vest pulled up on his TUG and pointed us in the direction of a door...the backdoor, it seemed, to the domestic terminal. The events that followed, an experience that lasted nearly eight hours and cost us a pair of fancy Snow Peak chopsticks, I'll save for the pages of Aviation Nightmare magazine. All I can say is: Don't fly Air Asia if you don't have to, and get out of Manila as fast as you can. There's so much more to see, and if Manila is all you have time for, you'd be better off visiting just about any other third world urban sprawl.
Side-note: Late night cocktails in Manila with Kyra's cousins a few weeks later gave us new hope for this over-populated, heavily polluted, yet surprisingly progressive metropolis. The Philippine government might be highly corrupt, but its people are innovative, interesting, and fed up with all of the bullshit.
The open air market in Davao City is a place where you'll see and smell just about everything.
Davao City Isn't Scary, So Go There
My girlfriend and her family are from the Philippines. That meant we had connections: a car and driver, cousins with businesses galore (including a bar), a free place to stay and an itinerary.
That also meant we were able to see parts of the island, for instance Mindanao, that most people might overlook. Places like the bustling open-air market at 5 a.m., the city center and adjoining public park, restaurants and bars -- including 147 bEEr Avenue, owned by Kyra's cousin -- and the homes and neighbourhoods of her extended family.
Narrow streets and small footpath stores are surrounded by new construction, ushering in a new era for Davao City. The contrast can be confusing, especially considering that government travel sites warn westerners away from Mindanao, as numerous people have been kidnapped around the outskirts of the city, and in mountain towns. My suggestion? Don't do the things you wouldn't do in Detroit. Wandering around, alone after hours in an unknown and sparsely populated area? Dumb. Making yourself seen, when it's easy to fly under the radar -- I'm looking at you, backpacking college kid with the giant camera -- also dumb. Travel fast and light, and don't make a scene. You'd be amazed how many people will overlook your existence. So skip the selfie.
Many roads are paved on Palawan, so getting from one end of the island to the other is easy.
Hop a Flight to Palawan and Rent a Motorcycle
First of all, fly Philippines Airlines. For two people, round trip, it will cost you less than $US200. Palawan, which is situated to the Southwest of Luzon, is long and skinny and sparsely populated. The Capitol city is Puerto Princesa, a bustling stretch of road that runs parallel to the airport, lined with shops, scooters and gas stations.
We rented a two room villa on Airbnb. A van was waiting for us at the airport and whisked us away, some 25 minutes to the north. Our villa, which was essentially a two story house on an equal number of acres, was air conditioned, clean and comfortable. For three people staying four nights it cost $US260. We also arranged a motorcycle rental, two to be exact.
Later that day, while Kyra and I wandered down the nearby beach, a tall Russian man approached and in his thick accent announced: "I'm looking for Mr. Coffee."
Hmm. Ever sceptical I replied, "tell me more about this Coffee fella." To which the large Eastern European answered, "I don't know him, but I have his motorcycles." Ha!
Unbeknownst to us, Patrick from Rent-A-Bike was a Russian expat. And since Kyra had asked him to deliver the bikes to a beachfront hotel down the street from our villa, sitting out front were a pair of brand new KTM 390 Dukes, as well as Patrick's business partner, Sergey, and his girlfriend. Following the exchange of paperwork and payment, the trio followed us back to our villa where we dropped off the motorcycles and caught a ride in the bed of their truck back to town so we could shop for groceries.
On Palawan, you can rent anything from a 125cc scooter to KTM's new 390 Duke.
Over the next four days, Kyra and I wandered around Palawan, blasting our way past mangrove trees, rice fields and farms. The roads, which are almost all paved, wind up and down both coastlines, allowing for epic motorcycle adventuring. There are untampered beaches on both sides, small stands selling fresh Buko juice, and a section of highway that ebbs and flows like a roller coaster. And while I'm not one for riding on the road, the KTM didn't disappoint in the hooligan department!
Tricycles are built by hand and are often painted and decorated elaborately.
Ride in a Tricycle
Though the Filipino equivalent of a city bus is the Jeepney, the taxi cab of the Philippines is a homemade tricycle, built around a small displacement Japanese motorcycle. They're everywhere, and can take you from one end of the city, or island, to the other for next to nothing. Comfortable? Sort of. Clean? That's relative. Affordable and fun? You're goddamn right!
Regular car style taxi options abound, but the tricycle is to the Philippines what the Crown Victoria is to New York. An icon and an essential.
We opted for fried worms and crocodile stir-fry. Typically, the locals eat their worms raw...
Eat Crocodile and Wood Worms
We went out to eat one night in Puerto Princesa at a restaurant recommended to us by a local lady. "Try the crocodile," she said. "And if you're feeling adventurous, eat the Tamilok (read: wood worms)." Sure.
We order all sorts of other things that evening -- pork adobo, some sort of stew, steamed vegetables, etc. But it was the deep fried worms and crocodile sisig that did the trick.
Now, I'm not one to say no (except Balut, but you'll read about that later), so an odd item on the menu never scares me. Worms, though, are not really my thing. But deep fried and dipped in a vinegar bath, they were delicious. And the crocodile, well, you'll have to try that yourself. Because it's good, and I think I'd approve of killing more crocodiles to see it on the menu in the States. I'm kidding! Kinda...
Mangrove trees dot the coast line and at low tide make a great place to park and relax.
Visit the Underground River and Climb Ugong Rock
I'm not one for tourist shit. I avoid vacation spots, resorts and cruise ships like they're the plague. But Kyra's mother insisted we book a trip into the underground rivers of Palawan. And it didn't suck, even if I was forced to wear a funny orange hard-hat. The tour, which makes a stop at Ugong Rock, was cheap. Maybe $US25 per person, which included transportation by van and boat, as well as lunch.
The rock, whose name is derived from the melodic sound made when you strike the stalagmite stones hanging from within its caves, takes about 30 minutes to climb, and is unlike any Stateside tourist attraction. Steep sections of rock are ascended with the help of old ropes. The uneven ground created tripping hazards that would give OSHA a field day! And mind you, we did this hike in flip flops.
While it's not a photo fit for Alpinist, the climb up Ugong rock was exciting.
Narrow sections of rock require you to be small and agile in order to continue the journey. And at the top is a zip line that will take you down in 22.5 seconds (that will cost you extra, of course). On the other hand, the underwater river is much more akin to your typical tourist destination. Line up, listen to instructions, board a boat, board another boat, put on a funny hat and then be paddled down river three kilometers, with a guide giving you a plethora of information, only so much of which you can absorb. But it was interesting, and certainly inspired me to do a bit more research about the island and its massive network of underground rivers.
Local drink of choice, Lambanog, commonly described as coconut wine or coconut vodka.
Drink Lambanog, If You Can Find It
The local beer is San Miguel, which comes in a few varieties: Pale Pilsen, Light, Super Dry, (all of which are 5% ABV), Red Horse (a mean 7% ABV), and two flavored types, Apple and Lemon (3% ABV). Honestly, all of these, aside from the fruity ones, taste the same, except the Red Horse will get you there sooner.
Like a lot of places in the world, the Germans influenced the alcohol. Which sort of sucks. So when I asked Kyra's cousin Cleo what the local booze of choice was, I was excited to hear about Lambanog, a clear spirit made from coconuts and tree sap, or so I was told. At 60% alcohol, it bites. On its own, it taste a bit like soil and tree bark, but mixed with mango juice it, well, doesn't taste like anything. Bingo!
Ride a Wave Runner on Paradise Island
Seriously, this is some of the most fun you can have on the water. And if you take a quick banana boat ride to Paradise Island you can rent one for $US40 per hour. The island, albeit aimed at tourists, is not your typical trap. The tourists they cater to are from the Philippines, which means local food and drink are everywhere, and most of the people you meet are likely from Manila and Davao City. Because so few Americans visit the Philippines, the tourism industry hasn't evolved the way it would otherwise. Which is both good and bad. The economy suffers, but deals can be had for adventure seeking western folk.
Don't Eat Balut
Seriously. If no one would have told me what it was, I may have given it a go. But feathers and beak stopped this kid short. After 19 days, the duck embryo has developed enough to be labelled and sold as Balut. Depending on how long it's in transit, the duck foetus can reach your table as either pea-sized and virtually unnoticeable, or nearly the size of its own egg...If you obtain your Filipino delicacy at this stage, be careful of the sharp bits (read: beak and feather stumps). I'm told they get stuck in your throat. Google will tell you more, but all I can suggest is to say no, even if your girlfriend's cousins are publicly shaming you.
You'll find that just about everyone is friendly and eager to know why you're visiting.
Stay A while
The Philippines are really quite incredible. A place visited by few Westerners, the islands (7,107 in all) offer an adventure seeker endless opportunities. And it's affordable. Perhaps the airfare will set you back a bit, but once you're on the ground you can get by on less than $US20 a day, depending on how you like to eat and drink.
In some ways it's like the Wild West of Southeast Asia. Unmolested by over-consumption, avoided by the constantly cautious, lawless in its own way, and free. The kind of freedom you feel when you leave the United States and realise that everything we do is monitored, manicured and maintained. That we rely on others to ensure our safety, as opposed to the self-reliance required to stay safe in Southeast Asia.
Perhaps that's why family is so important to the Filipinos. When you don't have anyone else looking out for you, it's good to keep your kin close. This was the kind connection I was hoping to encounter. And Kyra's family didn't disappoint.
So go. Skip that ten-day trip to Hawaii, or that eight-day cruise to the Caribbean. Spend your time and money instead exploring somewhere truly exotic. Somewhere that doesn't sell excitement in a package deal, but is instead the 'Choose Your Own Adventure' of vacation spots.
About the Author: Justin W. Coffey is a freelance photojournalist. He is the co-creator of WESTx1000, a multimedia company that creates unique content for adventure motorcycle community. Follow him on Instagram.
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.