I'll start off by saying we didn't do much at all in the Philippines. There were two main reasons for this; first, before we even arrived we'd made up our minds that we didn't want to go the Philippines. We'd left Vietnam in the mindset that we only had one more country left in Asia and were keen to get it 'out of the way' and get to Australia [It didn't help that any people we met on our travels who had been to the Philippines (including locals) said how unsafe and expensive it was – Nikki]. The second reason is that Nikki spent most of our time in El Nido ill, not to lay any blame on her for that it's just a fact of travelling that you're likely to get ill.
Unfortunately those two things combined saw us do only one thing of note in the four weeks we spent in the Philippines.
But keep reading anyway, I promise I made it sound interesting…
We spent our first couple of days in Manila, having flown into the airport there. Of Manila we saw; the inside of one of many Robinsons shopping malls and the roads leading to and from it. Any time we spent outside our room was spent in the shopping centre a two minute walk away. Our room was contained within a block of flats, inside which someone had set up a hostel and rented out rooms. It was a very weird set up – they had an office room, a room for guests to sit and make hot drinks and then a handful of rooms for people to stay in. We got used to it but when we first arrived we were like "the fuck is going on?". I must add though that we arrived at about 6am and the security guy asleep in the doorway had to wake up the hostel owners to see to the foreigners who'd just drifted in looking dazed. The staff, despite being half asleep still, were polite and apologised that our room wasn't ready yet (we didn't expect it to be, it was 6am and check in time was 2pm!) but they showed us to the common area upstairs and I promptly fell asleep after our long flight, while Nikki sat as lookout in an unusual role reversal.
That was as much as we got up to in Manila. [We also found a great bakery that we ate at each day we were there, YUM! – Nikki]
Next we flew back out of Manila airport bound for Puerto Princesa on the island of Palawan. We didn't really want to go to Puerto Princesa but it was impractical to get to our desired destination, El Nido, in one step. It also proved difficult and a little stressful to find accommodation anywhere on Palawan around New Year that wasn't prohibitively expensive or completely shit, with most of the realistic options having been booked by other, more forward planning, people a long time ago. [Seriously, if you go to the Philippines make sure you plan way ahead if you want a cheap trip, or turn up to a place and ask around hostels on the day. If you book anywhere in between you get stung with extra costs! – Nikki]
That left us spending an uneventful few days in Puerto Princesa. Our accommodation was thankfully quite nice in the end and the staff were almost too polite. We had a disappointing first meal at an Indian restaurant as it was the only open place within a kilometre. Again we spent more time than adventurous world travellers really should in a shopping mall. New Year's eve involved watching the film "New Year's Eve" on Netflix and Nikki intermittently peeking out the window in an attempt to see some fireworks. If we'd thought about it we might have realised that most places would be closed on New Year's day, but we didn't think about it, largely because it didn't feel like the Christmas/New Year period to us. Cut to us sitting in the only open restaurant we could find in the centre of town (and I'm being generous with the word restaurant here); McDonald's. I promised myself several years ago after a particularly disappointing McDonald's burger that I'd never eat anything but chips in McDonald's again and that even then I'd avoid it.
After that unpleasant burger eating experience we skulked back to our hotel and thought of all the ways we could waste time until we flew to Australia. We decided that we'd keep it simple and try to keep the cost down by staying on Palawan instead of flying to another island as the Philippines was already turning out to be more expensive than we'd bargained for.
We searched for some not completely terrible accommodation and booked a minivan to El Nido. On the 2nd of January we left Puerto Princesa and drove for five hours in a minivan. In which I sat on a folding seat, next to a giant. So I had half my bum on a tiny folding seat and had to sit twisted into the footwell as all my actual legroom was taken up by the BFG next to me.
We arrived in El Nido with weather to match our mood; foreboding grey skies and rain that said "I'm gonna be here a while, deal with it". We bartered a trike driver down from 800 to 600 Pesos (about £10) for a ride to Nacpan beach, about 45 minutes away. The journey, though wet, started off okay but when we turned off the main road we were met with… no road. This level of 'road' beat anything we'd seen so far. Our trike did an impressive impression of a 4×4 and successfully, if a little skittishly, delivered us safely to our accommodation at Nacpan beach.
Our home for the next four nights was essentially a big wooden shed on stilts on the beach. The location was amazing and the view out over the beach was stunning but the accommodation was pretty basic and was the first place we'd stayed without a flushing toilet (also, it was a miniature little toilet bowl and for guys it didn't leave a lot of room for… things when sitting down). Combined with a lurid colour scheme and a background smell of the aforementioned toilet we struggled to really enjoy our time at Nacpan. With the exception of a couple of walks along the beach and brief swims in the sea we didn't go any further that the front deck of the accommodation. And not because we were enjoying it so much we didn't want to go anywhere else as was the case at Twin Bay Resort in Thailand, but because we couldn't be bothered.
None too soon we left Nacpan and got another bumpy trike ride back to El Nido. The plan from this point was to spend the next four nights in El Nido, then get the ferry over to Coron for another nine nights before flying back to Manila. That was the plan I'd managed to force my self to come up with back when we were in Puerto Princesca and struggling to find accommodation that wasn't crap.
The difference between our plan and reality is a perfect example of why we like to keep things flexible and didn't book a round the world flight upfront and why we tend not to book any more than a couple of weeks ahead.
We spent the four nights in El Nido as planned, but then had to book another five nights on the day we were meant to leave because Nikki had spent half our last night going back and forth to the (outdoor) toilet with another bug (while trying to avoid the actual bugs that would wander in, I'm looking at you cockroaches). We asked if we could extend for a few more nights, despite the outdoor toilet but after a confusing exchange the answer was no. So up I went to the roof to get some phone signal because the WiFi was down again (even when it was working it was completely shit, everywhere in El Nido is. Reviews of the hotel had said as much but I didn't realise quite how bad it would be. Each page load took minutes, if it deigned to load at all). After a desperate search for another place that wasn't terrible we went off into town to check into an overpriced room in a small family run hotel.
Thankfully it met my main requirement when looking at places; a nice clean (indoor) bathroom with a flushing toilet. Four days went by while Nikki recovered from whatever she'd got and I went out to dinner alone and picked up lunch from the El Nido bakery (which is crazy cheap and has really good banana bread). In that time we missed the ferry we'd booked to Coron because there was no way Nikki could spend up to eight hours on a small ferry (this turned out to be a very wise call as we eventually found out just how small the ferry was).
We tried to book another ferry crossing to Coron only to find out the ferry didn't run on the day we wanted to leave and had to go back and extend our accommodation by another night and then go back and book the ferry for that day. So by the time we left we'd spent an additional six nights in El Nido and had to cancel one booking in Coron and amend another, all on frustratingly slow and inconsiderate WiFi (yes, I wrote inconsiderate. I meant to write 'inconsistent' but that came up as a suggestion and it fits, the internet is so bad).
A note on ferries from El Nido to Coron. Other blogs cover this in way more detail but I'll just say here that you've got basically two options; bad or worse. Advertised as 'fast' and 'slow'. The 'fast' boat supposedly needs booking a day or two in advance but seemed to always be fully booked and people reacted with a 'hah, you'll be lucky' attitude when we asked. The 'slow' boat isn't really advertised, it's just what people not lucky enough to get on a fast boat have to settle for.
We'd seen a couple of ferries at the harbour and Nikki had read a blog about the slow boat from another couple and found out they served food, how bad could it be? I wasn't expecting too much, I've realised not to in South East Asia, but still when we first got sight of the fine specimen of a vessel that was to carry us safely over the water on our eight hour journey to Coron I laughed. This had to be a joke. I like boats, I'm comfortable on boats, I've not spent a huge amount of time on them but we used to own a small motorboat and I've grown up kayaking with family but looking at the boat in front of us I struggled to believe they expected to fit 80 people on board and have us not sink in the harbour. We wobbled onboard and wedged ourselves into a gap, as Nikki's bag got piled up below deck. I decided I'd rather not have the contents of my bags crushed by the potential three metre pile of bags it would see chucked on top of it.
As the final passengers squeezed on board and the staff moved the garden chairs (yes, plastic garden chairs) into position for them to sit on we started moving off. Before we left the harbour they made everyone get and put on a life jacket, cue plenty of nervous looks between nearly everyone on board.
After I was sufficiently sure we weren't going to sink soon I sat up on the window ledge behind me and got some fresh air. Life jackets came off as the journey progressed, it seemed they only made everyone put them on to appease the harbour staff. I sat on my very uncomfortable window ledge until the spray had got me so wet I had salt water running down my face and I swapped to an equally uncomfortable seat inside. To my surprise
they did serve food and the prawn I received in amongst my vegetables made it back to the sea, though I'm not sure it'll thrive – it was a bit dead.
We made good time to Coron and arrived an hour and a half early, much to my bottom's relief (the bench seat was solid wood). We'd disembarked and set off to find our new home. We both commented on the way to find it that we've got so used to turning up somewhere new that we don't think anything of it any more, we also realised the irony in that thought.
Instead of the 13 nights we'd initially expected to spend in Coron (which was far, far too many anyway) we ended up with 7 nights left before we flew back to Manila. For us that was still too many as we'd both really had enough of Asia.
As it was our final week in the Philippines turned out to be our most active and enjoyable. We booked a boat tour and walked up Mount Tapyas, a hill just outside of town, a couple of times to enjoy the views and read.
We booked the 'Ultimate Coron Tour' with Twin Tour and Travel and got picked up early in the morning on a trike with another couple from our 'pension house' (I never found out what it means but I assume it's the equivalent of B&B). The trike dropped us off at the harbour and we stood around waiting while the staff apparently figured out how this whole thing worked for the first time and we eventually made it to a boat. Our tour guide gave a barely audible run down of the day's plan and we set off for our first stop, whatever that was.
I won't give details of each individual stop as they can all be summarised as; epic scenery, water, boat, quite a few people. A couple that I will highlight is Kayangan lake and Japanese shipwreck. As you pull up to the shore to walk to the lake you can see that a lot of people come here, there's a substantial walkway and equally substantial concrete steps leading inland to the lake. The lake and the cliffs surrounding it are cool, but the crowd that is squeezed into it did somewhat detract from the beauty (yes, I realised I have to include myself in that criticism. Like you're not stuck in traffic, you are traffic).
The shipwreck has almost nothing visible from the surface and unless you're comfortable diving under a big group of people that might block you as you try to surface again you'll probably leave not seeing much.
My highlight of the trip was just being on the boat and at one of the stops, instead of visiting the beach we were there to see we stayed on the boat and I jumped off a few times and generally messed around.
It might sound like I wasn't all that impressed with the boat trip and the things we saw but that isn't the case. It's just that we'd both seen landscapes very similar for the past four months and we've got used to seeing it. If we were on a weeks holiday we'd probably be blown away with what we were seeing and gushing about how amazing the tour was. It's definitely worth the £20 or so we paid each, even though we'd seen similar things before.
Aside from the boat trip, Mount Tapyas and a little exploring of Coron town we didn't do much in Coron and I don't think there is that much to do. Coron also, not unexpectedly, has the same issues with WiFi that El Nido experiences. Our second 'pension house' was the worst example of this; we spent a fruitless ten minutes trying to use the WiFi before giving up and going elsewhere. It often wasn't turned on anyway. More generally we struggled to find anything positive about Lan Bless Pension House and wouldn't recommend it. We had to specifically book a room with a shower, which we didn't get at first. We had to ask for toilet roll, the room was tiny, the shower was cold (fairly standard in the Philippines but still) and though there was air con it let out into the bathroom which meant that became a sauna and smelt less than pleasant. We don't generally have high standards for accommodation and have stayed in objectively worse places but we really didn't like Lan Bless and we've paid much less and got much more before.
As it was we were very happy when it came to fly back to Manila and spend one final night there in much nicer accommodation for much the same price as Lan Bless had been. We ate a second McDonalds and made good use of the WiFi before going to bed for the last time in Asia. Our flight out the next day wasn't until just before 5pm but we left our room before 12 and just camped out in the airport.
As we were standing waiting to get on the plane, in the tunnel thing that goes up to the door it jolted and the floor dropped just enough to make everyone think we were about to die.
The flight left about 40 minutes late which made us nervous about catching our connecting flight from Kuala Lumpur to Melbourne. It was the shortest connection time we've had at an hour and a half but in the end we made it with time to spare though it was a bit stressful until we made it to the gate thanks to our late departure. Top tip; pay attention to the time you have between connecting flights! I think three hours is a comfortable time for us, it means your first flight can leave late and you should still have time to calmly make it to your next flight.
As I've probably made quite clear neither of us really wanted to be in the Philippines by the time we got there. That's not a criticism of the Philippines itself and nor is it a criticism of South East Asia when we say we'd had enough of it, it's just that for us, three months was enough. The fourth month spent in the Philippines was too much. If we'd visited the Philippines earlier our experience probably would have been very different.