Part 8: Palawan

Palawan was not in our initial plans due to its relative remoteness to the rest of the Philippines.  However, having read about it rated “The Most Beautiful Island in the World” only 2 years ago, we decided that considering we were already in that neck of the woods, it had to be visited.  It was also the 5th biggest island of the country, so remote or not, we won’t be short of things to do and places to see, even if we were to stay put there till the end of our trip.  We only had one week left anyway…

With all necessary preparations made the day before, we woke up the next morning to the sound of rain – definitely high time to leave Bohol!  Another ferry starting with a prayer took us to Cebu in 2 hours without any incidents (maybe there was something to those prayers, after all…).  The rain in Cebu was pouring even harder, but we only had a quick taxi ride to the airport to catch our flight to Puerto Princesa on Palawan.  Just the name of the place promised adventures of royal proportions, and sounded amazingly grand!  One hour later, we were there.  The sun was shining, the temperatures were warm, and the surrounding looked temptingly promising.

We had only a rough plan for our stay on the island.  From what we could see on the map, Palawan was actually a long mountain range, sticking out of the Sulu Sea, and stretching from Southwest to Northeast for the impressive 425 km.  The capital, Puerto Princesa, was bang in the middle of it.  Online resources promised amazing places and great parties in El Nido, on the Northern-most tip of the island.  All of them unanimously agreed that getting either to the North or to the South of the island from Puerto Princesa was a bitch due to the length of the journey, mountainous terrain, and lack of easy public transportation options.  We were mentally bracing ourselves for an 8-hour bus-ride, but did not make any commitments just yet.

Palawan map – courtesy of www.palawanferry.com

Considering that our flight from Cebu arrived in the afternoon, and bus rides on unlit night roads through mountains on remote islands were not among the adventures we wanted to experience, we booked a night in a hotel in Puerto PrincesaFloral Villarosa looked nice online, was affordable, had a pool, and offered free airport transfers – what more could you want?!…  Our driver for the 15-min ride to the hotel was a cheerful and completely round guy, who introduced himself as Bobby.  Bobby may have had problems fitting in his own car, but was a superb driver and companion – within the first five minutes of the trip he told us where to eat and drink in Puerto Princesa, shared his opinion on various destinations on the island, and told us half his life story.  All this while expertly avoiding potholes, people and chickens on the road without even looking in the direction he was driving in.  He definitely would have told us much more, but the town was not that big, and the hotel was not that far from the airport.  We loved Bobby!

He delivered us to the door of our lovely digs covered with vines and flowers, but before letting him go, we secured his services for the trip to El Nido the following day.  Fuck the 8-hour bus-rides!…  We could afford to cough up 40 euros a head, and make the trip in 4 to 5 hours in an air-conditioned car in great company.  According to Bobby, he made such trips often, and the only thing he hated was driving at night.  We agreed with him on this point, and decided to leave at 8 the following morning, which would allow him to get back home before dark.

The refreshing pool at Floral Villarosa

We showered the day of travel off our tired bodies, thoroughly enjoyed the pool at Floral Villarosa and had dinner in Captain Ribs (recommended by Bobby – who else!?).  The place had great food, a lovely garden with candles and a giant ginger cat presiding in the middle of it.  Even when sleeping he looked like he owned the place. 

The aspiring boss of Captain Ribs

We had the ribs, the wine, and enjoyed the evening thoroughly.  Apart from a frog falling out from the tree on a couple sitting at the next table (it ran away too fast for me to take a photo, and seemed to be as shocked as the middle-aged Dutch lady and her husband whose table it landed on), the evening so far was peaceful and uneventful. 

Our only mistake was the decision to have a nightcap cocktail at the bar before leaving.  While sipping what we erroneously thought to be our last beverages for the night, we started chatting with three French guys at the bar.  Two of them happened to be the rightful owners of the place (no matter what the ginger cat thought), and after our compliment to their restaurant and the wine, they started opening bottles, generously inviting us to join in whatever it was they were celebrating.  Several hours later, we were stumbling back to the hotel rather drunk, only vaguely and painfully remembering that we had to get up early the following morning…

Puerto Princesa sunset

Alas, our last memories of Puerto Princesa were not the drunk haze, but the amazing Villarosa’s Best breakfast – hash browns with ham, cheese, eggs and bacon, that almost resuscitated us.  Thank you, the unknown breakfast cook – we thoroughly enjoyed your creations!

Bobby was on time, fresh as a daisy, and cheerful as ever.  He threw our bags in the car, squeezed himself behind the wheel (the fact that his driver’s seat was pushed all the way back almost into the boot did not help one bit), and we started off on our journey.  During the next 4 hours (this was exactly how long it took to make 260 km from Puerto Princesa to El Nido, we congratulated ourselves numerous times on making the smart decision the day before – 8 hours on a bus with hangover, through windy mountain roads would have been way too much for our delicate souls!…

Bobby continued entertaining us with a variety of stories, and even through our headaches we managed to enjoy his company.  An hour-long conversation about cocks was definitely the highlight of the trip.  Only in the Philippines!…

Cockfighting (of the bird- and not S&M variety) is a serious business and a national sport in the Philippines.  Before the squeamish-ones and the animal-rights activists spit in my direction for bringing the subject up, it is important to understand that cockfighting is a 6,000 year old tradition, and the gamecocks (I shit you not – this is the official name of the bird!) are not specially trained to be aggressive.  This breed of roosters possesses congenital aggression toward all males of the same species, and the breeders only try to increase their stamina and strength.  Tradition or not, it is still a blood sport, where the loser normally goes into the soup.  Considering the fact that most roosters do end up there anyway, at least the gamecocks go out fighting.  Everyone in the Philippines loves cockfighting, and big events are held regularly throughout the country.  “You have a beautiful cock!” is a perfectly acceptable compliment in polite society in the Philippines (considering the bird is present as well).

With only one pit-stop on the way (toilet for us, food for Bobby), we reached El Nido in record 4 hours, hugged Bobby good-bye, and looked around.  El Nido sure looked like a happening place, and was simultaneously buzzing and relaxed.  We felt right at home.  The Forever Blessed Inn booked online, however, needed all the blessings it could get, as it turned out to be quite a dump.  We thanked our lucky stars and foresightedness for having made the booking for only one night, and decided to apply the tried and tested way of looking for accommodation: walking around and knocking on doors of decent-looking places.  This had additional advantages of sightseeing and exploring the area.

Welcome to El Nido!

Feeling the end of vacation coming, and wishing to make the most of it, we wanted not just a decent-looking place, but a decent-looking place with a pool.  Of which, at the time of our visit, downtown El Nido had exactly two: Sea Cocoon and Cuna Hotel.  These were the 1st two doors we knocked at, and were lucky on second try: the newly-opened Cuna Hotel was happy to welcome us starting from tomorrow!  We happily paid up for the next 5 days (at the equivalent of €40 a night for a spacious, modern room with fantastic bathroom, air-conditioning and a rooftop pool it was a bargain!), and with the last week of our holiday sorted, we could now relax, have a drink and explore the area.

View of El Nido from the rooftop of Cuna Hotel

Upon closer acquaintance, El Nido did not disappoint – it was a crazy little town, sleepy and bustling with energy at the same time, with a wild assortment of little shops, bars and restaurants.  The latter were ranging from the surprising “Odessa Mama” with home-made Ukrainian pelmeni and home-brewed beer on the menu, to the Israeli-run “Happiness Beach Bar”, serving amazing hummus and offering swings and cocktails at the bar.  Throughout the following 5 days thoroughly enjoyed both, as well as “Trattoria Altrove” – a classy Italian with an authentic pizza oven, chucking out fantastic pizzas and attracting crowds of hungry diners every evening. 

Our go-to place for the evenings, though, was “Subasko” – a small music bar around the corner from Cuna Hotel, where we made friends with the bar staff and the owner (all of whom were jamming together and in turns every evening).  The place served drinks (wine as well!) and snacks, and was jam-packed every night, with singing and dancing (with audience participation) going on well into the early hours of the morning.  We loved El Nido!

Subasco – the best bar in El Nido!

Chernobyl

Vacations in the mountains or on the beach?  This is last season’s fashion! Follow the path of true adventure, and visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – a 30-km exclusion area around the site of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster.

33 years ago, at 01:23 in the morning on April 26, 1986 reactor #4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant blew up as a result of an incorrectly conducted safety test, causing the meltdown of the nuclear core, and releasing huge amounts of highly radioactive materials into the air.  This created one of only 2 nuclear energy disasters rated at the maximum severity classification level 7 (the other one was the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster).  The Soviet authorities at the time denied the accident not only to the rest of the world, but to its own citizens.  More than a 100,000 people in the nearest towns and villages remained in the highly contaminated area for over 36 hours after the accident, and were exposed to lethal doses of radiation before the evacuation started.  When it did, people were told this was a temporary measure and were instructed to take only documents and basic necessities, leaving all their belonging behind. They were never allowed back.

Next came the “liquidators” – firemen, army soldiers, reservists and regular power plant workers, who were thrown into the midst of the nuclear inferno, where electronics and machines broke down due to high level of radiation.  They were not informed about the nature of the disaster they were called to fight, nor were they equipped for doing so.  Nicknamed “biorobots“, most of them died either right away, or over the period of the following years due to all sorts of health problems caused by exposure to inconceivably high doses of radiation.

The sargofagos structure, covering the infamous Reactor #4 today
The monument to liquidators at the main gate of the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant

Now, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone remains a time-capsule of the Soviet era – a haunting amusement park, a monument to the people who left, and an environmental recovery zone, where nature is reclaiming its space.  The 30-kim Zone covers an area of about 2,600 km2, and visitors are allowed in the Zone only if accompanied by guides of several tour companies accredited with the Zone administration, who also arrange for entrance permits and transportation. Before you ask – it is relatively safe. During a 2-day trip to the Zone, one receives the amount of radiation equivalent to a one-way transatlantic flight. The visitors are also provided with a Geiger counter that shows level of radiation, and are screened for radiation when exiting both at the 10 km checkpoint and at the 30 km checkpoint. If you respect the rules and don’t do anything stupid, like roll on the ground (which still remains highly contaminated), or pick up souvenirs to take home, you will be safe and won’t glow in the dark upon return.

Welcome to Pripyat
View over Pripyat from the multi-storey building

I can honestly say, that the 2-day trip to the Zone was one of the most bizarre, and most memorable trips I have ever done.  We went to Chernobyl in a small, 6-people group of friends, and had a chance to see the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant per se (with the sarcophagus, covering the infamous Reactor #4), visit the ghost town of Pripyat (once a model Soviet city, built to house 50,000 people supporting the operations of the power plant), and come up close to the gigantic and super-secret Duga Radar facility (an over-the-horizon radar (OTH) system which was part of the Soviet missile defense early-warning radar network). It was the Radar facility and the Pripyat ghost town that made the most unforgettable impressions.

An apartment building basement, full of gas masks

The first thing you realize in the Zone in general is how quiet everything is. You hear nothing, but the wind and the birds. No traffic noise, no people, none of the sounds you normally associate with human habitat.  When you enter Pripyat, at first you don’t even realize you are actually in a town. We were there in June, and with all the trees and leaves around, we had a complete sensation of being in a middle of a very dense forest. Only when our guide pointed out the multistoried apartment blocks hidden by the nature happily re-claiming the area, did we notice them.

Inside one of Pripyat’s kindergartens

Getting inside the buildings is not exactly legal, but still possible, and facilities like School #2, or the Hospital Complex #126 give you a glimpse into the Soviet life, forever frozen in time in this ghost town. I even found one of my history shool books from the 80-es on the floor of one of the classrooms in the school.

Operating room of Hospital Complex #126
Nursery in Hospital Complex #126

The left-over personal belonging of residents were collected and buried in the aftermath of the disaster, to prevent looting and further contamination spread. Without people or their personal items, the place looks empty and spooky, but the spirit of the 80-ies is still there.

The Duga Radar

The Duga Radar was impressive due to its sheer size. A huge steel mega-structure with the two out of the original three antennas still standing: 1st 150 meters high, and 550 meters long, 2nd 80 meters high and 220 meters long. The third, a much smaller circle antenna was dismantled and looted years earlier. The radar system used to broadcast a sharp tapping sound, which earned it the nickname “Woodpecker,” and was so powerful, that the sounds disrupted legitimate radio broadcasts and communications all over the world. Ultra-high-tech when it was built back in the 70-es, it is now horribly outdated (an average iPhone contains more technology than this gigantic structure), and stands abandoned as a remnant of the long-gone era.

The Duga Radar
The main control room of the Duga Radar

We also went inside the huge concrete dome of the un-finished cooling tower of reactor #5 – it was being built when the neighboring reactor #4 blew up, and any further construction works stopped. The echo inside was unreal – bouncing off the slopes of the cooling tower several times before dying out, it sure added to the surrealistic magic of the place.

Inside the unfinished cooling tower of Reactor #5
Inside the unfinished cooling tower

Several tour companies specialize on the trips to the Zone, with the oldest one being “SoloEast Travel“. The 2-day trip organized by them, and our guide Igor was a truly amazing, heartbreaking and unforgettable experience.

The Zone is a one of a kind place, and if you want to visit – do it soon! The buildings in Pripyat, initially designed to last for 25 years won’t last long, and will soon either fall apart, or will get swallowed by the surrounding forest.