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A Trip to the Philippines

posted Feb 21, 2012, 6:30 PM by Evan Morrison

Rising at 7am, we ate our breakfast and then clambered into the van. Reaching the underground river is a two hour drive through the developing island of Palawan. I can't stress how incredible it is to step outside of the cold and quiet hotel lobby into the early morning sun, which by 8am has already heated the road to 30 degrees. Instantly, you start to sweat, and the scents of the mangroves and road side pollution fill your senses. You then walk past all of the petty cabs who all sing-out for business. Offering to take you to see the town, each one undercuts the next, offering cheaper rates and better attractions.

Inside the heavily tinted van, we pull out onto the bumpy road where traffic travels like most traffic in the Philippines, as a chaotic race of wheels. There are road rules; but, they're not enforced and it's not uncommon to end up driving into oncoming traffic. You driver pulls back into the right lane at the last second in a gut wrenching game chicken. The drivers of all of the cars also have a challenging love for their horns and communicate constantly, one honk for hello get out of the way, two honks to say we're behind you get out of the way and three honks to say we're passing get out of the way. Outside the scenery changes: from houses built by hand from aluminium and straw, to old elegant Spanish estates, and then into sprawling tall stone churches. Eventually though after leaving the towns the views change between farmers either walking or riding buffalo towed carts, filled with backdrops of the tropical bush land, or rice paddies. As we drove on through the shakily cut roads, etched into the country side, the lofty and distant mountains draw ever closer.

We arrive at a sea side village, and part with the van while or guide makes arrangements for our boat ride. The biggest trick I've learnt is that you have to pay someone to book for you. The locals are extremely racist and as soon as they know you're white you pay rates that are 6 times more than the locals. We then went to the jetty and found our boat. The underground river is hidden away in a bay inaccessible to cars and so we had to skip across on a boat between the bays. It's a stunning thing to ride by boat, and hop between the bays (it's like you're in a movie). After a short 20 minute ride, we finally rounded a bend to enter the bay like pirates, except there were something like 20 other boats already anchored up. The funny thing is that the boatmen will drop you off, then anchor off the coast and swim back to shore, so it ended up like a ghost bay floating through a ship graveyard with no-one there. We docked and swam through the final bit of surf before clambering onto the beach where the locals greet you with cameras (it's successful business for them to take your pictures and then sell them to you before you leave). We looked around a bit while we dried off and were able to see some large monitors and monkeys. Fortunately, we were warned to keep our belongings close. We had a laugh at the expense of a Korean tourist who had taken a nap at the picnic tables and had monkeys trying to pick pocket him. After trekking inland for another few minutes, you eventually come upon the green river that leads into the underground labyrinths.

Around the cave entry are vines and mangroves that certainly set the scene as a cave of hidden treasures. While waiting for our tour boat of the underground river, we met a photographer from National Geographic named Jacob and chatted for a while. He explained that he was spending a month traveling to all parts on the island and that he loved the country and people immensely. We then parted ways to begin our tour. Like most tours in the Philippines, your fun is heightened by the tour guides wit. And our boatman didn't disappoint, pointing out all of the formations and joking with all over the guests in both English and Tagalog. Whenever a tourist lost their helmet, he would yell out "What the hell man?", which encouraged giggles from the rest of the crew. When we got back from the caves, we had another round of picture taking before finally starting the journey home.

The food along the way was just as spectacular, from home made Philippines lunches and dinners to exotic specialities like Crocodile. My favourite was on the second day in Palawan when we went island hopping. At lunch, we were served fresh seafood from the islands all BBQ'd in front of us, including crab, shrimp and fish.