Part 2. Boracay

We heard about Boracay when it closed down – the story of our lives!…  A tiny island off the northwest tip of Panay Island in Western Visayas region of the Philippines with white sandy beaches and year-round temperatures of +27 ˚ -35 ˚ C (+81-95 ˚ F) it was THE place to be.  Which was steadily confirmed over the years by numerous awards from travel publications and agencies, bringing in swarms of visitors (in 2017 more than 2 million tourists descended onto the 10.32 km2 of the island surface!).  And now it was closed, as in their excitement over the newly-discovered “Promised Land”, the previous visitors managed to almost completely destroy said paradise.

In April 2018 the Philippine government decided to take matters in their hands and announced a 6-month tourist ban, during which the island would undergo major cleanup and renovations – from plucking out every hotel and hostel not meeting basic sanitary and engineering requirements, to putting in an island-wide sewerage system, which up to that time did not exist.  As is quite often the case with paradises, before 2018 Boracay had a dark (and smelly) underbelly – all sewage was simply pumped out into the ocean at Bulabog Beach on the eastern side of the island.

The tourist ban was a temporary thing, though, and was expected to last 6 months.  We quickly did the math – technically, the island should be open in October, 2 months before our trip – and we were impatiently watching the clock.  Rumours were, that upon re-opening, the island will have limited visitation capacity, and only those with pre-booked accommodation would be allowed in.  This contradicted our nomadic travel rules, but we were ready to bend them for the white beaches just this one time…

On the morning of Christmas Eve we set off for the airport, and having bravely queued for over an hour to the accompaniment of loud wailings of a seriously pissed European couple with huge golf bags, standing right behind us, we checked in to our flight to Caticlan, Boracay.  The departures lounge surprised us with absolute lack of alcohol.  Not that we planned to reach the intoxication levels of the European golfers we just had a dubious pleasure to spend the last hour with (this would not have been possible in the short period of time before the flight anyway!), but still…  This set me thinking about alcohol and religions.  Usually, Catholicism and alcohol go very well together (look at Bavaria, Ireland and Poland!), but apparently not in the Philippines…  Without the possibility of starting the Christmas celebrations with a glass of prosecco, we had nothing to do apart from people watching.  As always, the airport did not disappoint!  A petite woman in a seat in front of us was masterfully gluing on fake eye-lashes with one hand (the other one was holding a compact mirror the size of a Euro coin), while having an animated conversation on a cell phone seemingly glued between her ear and shoulder.  Now, this is a skill!!!  I would not be able to do this with both hands and a proper mirror, even if my life depended on it…

The flight was on time, and after a quick and easy 1 hour, we landed in Caticlan’s Godofredo P. Ramos Airport!  For a handy price of 700 pesos (~12 Euros) a smiley girl at the airport arrivals desk organized a bus, a speed boat and another bus right to the doorstep of our far-sightedly booked hotel on the island.  For the record – the booking was checked twice (!) by official-looking guys before we were allowed on the 1st bus.

On the way from Caticlan to Boracay!

All connections worked smoothly, and (unlike in most other places in Asia) were punctual.  In less than an hour, with not much waiting around, we were on Boracay!

Welcome to Boracay!

A quick ride from the boat pier took us to the hotel, conveniently located right in the middle of the island down the “Boracay Highway” (official name of the main street).  The central drag was as ugly and nondescript as they generally get everywhere in Asia, where shops, shacks, hotels, cacophony of noises and smells and what else, densely covers every square inch of the roadside surface.  Take a quick step aside to either side of the road, however, and you find yourself on a different planet – white beaches, palm trees, hammocks and complete serenity.  We first experienced this paradox on Koh Lanta in Thailand, and it was to be repeated predictably on every single island in South-East Asia.  The Boracay’s only difference from this classic scenario was that every 3rd place along the main drag was boarded up, or bulldozed down.  These must have been the un-sanitary and un-licensed establishments.  The pavement (sheer presence of which was a surprise) was dug up for putting sewage pipes in, and the tiles were still being put together.  The construction workers and authorities sure have been busy during the 6 months of island’s closure, but the job was nowhere near done…

We booked a room in Lime Hotel Boracay, attracted by the pool, good reviews and the hotel’s presence on the list of officially approved venues to operate on the island after re-opening.  The list had 365 hotels (compared to at least triple the ## before closure), and as we experienced first-hand, the rules and limitations were being observed.  Considering that only 6,400 visitors were allowed to enter Boracay per day, you would want to do your homework, book a room in advance, and check if the hotel of your choice is on the official list (ideally before making said booking…)  The hotel did not disappoint – it was clean, modern, made of sustainable materials (additional karma points!), with a chilled roof-top pool, nice rooms, and only a 5-min walk from the famous White Beach.

The Lime Hotel Boracay – sirprisingly missing the sign, but offering every other comfort! 🙂

The White Beach was, indeed, breath-taking!  4 km long (the length of the whole island is 7 km), it did, indeed, boast white powder sands and clear blue waters.  It was fantastic, but by far not deserted, though – with the allowed 6,400 daily visitors it looked quite overcrowded.  I don’t want to think what the place was like when daily tourist numbers reached 19,000 people before the closure!…  6,000 people were barely bearable (pardon the pun).  Three times as much – probably not so much…

The White Beach

The majority of tourists we spotted over the next 2 days we stayed on the island, were Asian, armed with cameras, phones and tablets for taking photos of everything around, and umbrellas to hide from the sun.  The rest were either well-behaved families of Scandinavian or American origin or a random assortment of piss-heads from all over the world.  Somehow, we gravitated towards the latter…  Or, maybe, they gravitated towards us… Having landed for a cold drink and some people watching at a welcoming bar by the beach, we met up with two Irish lads – friends from childhood they now conveniently resided on the opposite sides of the world (one moved as far as Australia, while the other one stayed home). They re-united for the holidays on Boracay, and seemed to have been celebrating this with zeal ever since they set foot on the island.  They were travelling in the company of a really hot-looking English girl from the Midlands, who had a purely platonic friendship with the two, having convinced them about her lesbian inclinations.  She also later shared that she was definitely into guys (just not the two brave souls she was travelling with) and pregnant, which did not stop her from drinking and partying…  The trio was definitely an interesting group, and we bumped into them everywhere we went.  Brave Nic even went partying with them till 4 in the morning one night.  I very considerately stayed put.

Boracay had great coffee everywhere – a proper Italian espresso was to be had almost in every bar, and we even managed to find a wine bar to spend evenings at!  In addition to the regular assortment of local beers and cocktails, the beach bar at The Victory Divers proudly carried 3-liter bottles of red and presumably Italian wine labelled “Rotwein”.  The contents were drinkable enough and we did not ask any questions.  Victor, the Barman, was friendly and welcoming, and other patrons did not disappoint – from a heavily pissed elderly guy from Ingolstadt near Munich, to a huge bloke from Hong Kong on a short vacation with his tiny wife tattooed from head to toe – everybody was friendly, mildly intoxicated (the Ingolstadt guy took the intoxication to the upper level of social, so wasn’t overly coherent most of the times), and absolutely relaxed.  On the first night Victor confessed that the “Rotwine” bottle he opened for me was the bar’s one and only, and promised to keep it for me for the next days.  The promise was kept, and after 3 evenings, the bar did not carry any more red wine.

The 1st day on Boracay we did absolutely nothing, alternating between walking down the beach and cooling ourselves in the hotel pool (which had a really cool leaf-shaped lounger inside (!) the shallow part of the pool – fantastic idea!), and did our best to let the vacation mode set it.

The views and sunsets definitely helped.  Boracay had fantastic, mindbogglingly beautiful and absolutely amazing sunsets! 

One of Boracay’s majestic sunsets

By the end of the day, the colors of the surrounding world intensified, not being burned down by the bright midday heat, the sun would go down to the horizon and the shadows from the palm trees would give the beach a mysterious and fairy-tale look.  Within minutes, the skies would burn bright orange and red with the last rays of the sun sinking in the waters of the Tablas Straight.  But not before highlighting the clouds with all shades of red, pink and yellow and then leaving them hanging like huge bright black puffs on the backdrop of unbelievably yellow sky over the soon-to-be darkened waters.  Boracay was definitely worth the trip – if only for the sunsets!!!

The “magic hour” before the sunset

On the 2nd day we set off exploring the island.  We opted for not renting a scooter and relying our own two feet, as the island really was not that big.  It worked.  We crossed over from the White Beach to the other side of the island, the former “dark underbelly” of the Paradise.  You could still see the remnants of the pipes that used to happily pump out sewage away from the watchful eyes of the tourists, but they were no longer in use.  A big brand-new sewage cleaning plant was constructed in the center of the island, and seemed to be in full operation. 

On the other side of the island – Bulabong Beach

The clean-up efforts were very visible on the other side of the island – all the buildings that crawled in too close to the waterfront were simply cut almost in half, simply chopping away the “illegal” part, to leave the sands and beaches available to all.  It was now up to the owners of the buildings to decide whether to give them a face-lift and figure out how to do without the chopped-off bits, or bulldoze them completely.  Judging by the fact that at the time of our visit most of them remained in the “chopped-off” stated, the owners were still undecided…

Remnants of the old sewage pipes

On recommendation of our Irish-Australian friends, we had tacos in a lovely Mexican place on the way back to our side of the island (not too logical, eating Mexican food half across the world from its place of origin, but the tacos were fantastic!), enjoyed one more swim in the hotel pool, admired one more amazing Boracay sunset and spend the rest of the evening with Victor the Barman, happily finishing his supplies of “Rotwein”.

Bye-bye, Boracay!

The end of the year was closing in on us, and we were intent to make it to Siquijor, about 600 km South from Boracay for the New Year festivities.  There were no direct flights or boats, so we had to first make it to Cebu, the 5th biggest city in the Philippines, and from there figure out the rest of the route.  The trip back to Caticlan was arranged – bus, boat and another bus, and an Air Asia flight was booked to take us South to Cebu.  We were positive we’ll sort out the rest on the way!

Part 1. Manila, the City that is Hard to Love.

Somehow, with all our travels through South-East Asia over the past years, both of us managed to skip the Philippines.  Not intentionally – somehow, we just never made it there…  Now came the time to amend this terrible wrong, and get to know the archipelagic country of 7, 641 islands.  The fact that one of our friends recently moved there and opened a hostel on one of them definitely contributed to the idea of making the Philippines our next destination.

Our plans were quite rough and relatively modest – Manila, Boracay (THE ultimate beach island, that has only recently been re-opened for tourists after all the havoc the hordes of visitors wreaked there earlier), a remote island of Siquijor where our friend built his new digs and started his new life, and after that – whatever we would have time for.  Tarsiers (of them later), chocolate hills, islands, beaches and waterfalls were all on the menu, and for the most part, all our wishes were eventually fulfilled.

Our first step was Manila.  All guidebooks and travelers agreed it was a shithole, but we had two reasons to choose it as our destination:

  • the flight from Europe to Manila was considerably cheaper than to Cebu, the other international gateway into the Philippines
  • shithole or not, Manila was the country’s capital after all, and we wanted to form our own impressions.

The vacation started in the best possible way – with upgrades into business class on both (!) legs of our flight.  The first one came as a complete surprise, and while 2.5 hours from Munich to Istanbul didn’t make such a big difference, it was nice to be pampered.  When our names were called again in Istanbul, and our economy class boarding passes were exchanged to business ones for the 12-hour flight to Manila, our gratitude knew no limits.  We were officially in love with Turkish Airlines!!!

Turkish Airlines!!!!

Upgrades aside, I have to note, that the Turkish Airlines general level of service was much, much higher than with our regular travel partner, Lufthansa.  The staff were smilier (and more sincerely so), the planes were cleaner, the leg room (even in economy, which we did experience on our return flights – alas, no quadruple upgrades were in our stars!), and the food much more palatable.  From now on, whenever possible – Turkish Airlines every time!

We landed in Manila in the late afternoon, and having far-sightedly booked two night in a fancy hotel near the airport (thank you, the unknown Gods of business travel that allow the weary travelers to accumulate hotel bonus points, redeemable for free nights later!), we were intent on getting there as fast as possible.  The fast immigration and baggage service raised our hopes high, we jumped into a taxi, and then things halted to a stop.  We were about to experience the capital’s afternoon pre-holiday traffic in all its glory!  Manila traffic was not just mad, chaotic, and defying every possible traffic law and rule, but also packed to the extent imaginable only in a mad dog’s dream.  The sheer number of vehicles cluttering the few arteries connecting the airport with the rest of the world was unbelievable.  Our taxi got quickly sucked into the midst of this vortex, and all we had left on our 3.5 km journey that lasted close to two hours (!) was to relax and find consolation in observing the chaos outside.

The first thing that definitely sprung to attention were Jeepneys.  The most common and popular type of public transportation in the Philippines, they originated from the US military jeeps left over from World War II, jeepneys looked like a stretched army personnel carrier, that aspired to grow into a bus, but hadn’t quite made it.  They compared with one another in the kitschiness of decorations, and the number of passengers crammed inside.  They were hard not to notice thanks to said decorations – tons of bling-bling, fairy lights and what not, all over the vehicles, along with the “themed” approach to branding – on our ride from the airport we noticed jeepneys bearing proud fancy names of “Batman’s Army” and “Shakira’s”, as well as the inevitable “Mary Mother of God”, and “Holy Face of Jesus”.

We also spotted a huge loaded truck with two guys happily sitting on top of the truck’s load, involved in what looked like an all-absorbing card game, and a van with an Apple sticker on the rear window, accompanied by an equally large sticker advertising Glock pistols – go figure…

The streets were clogged to an amazing degree, though!…  The traffic was not moving AT ALL.  It strongly reminded me of the streets of St. Petersburg during the New Year holidays, when everybody and their mother went shopping for presents and food for the celebrations, and managed to happily block every single nook and cranny of the city.  In Manila the situation was the same.  We landed there on December 23rd, right before Christmas, and considering Manila was officially THE most populated city in the world, that also happened to be situated in the country that took Catholicism to its highest level, this should not have been a major surprise…  It still was.

The funny part was (as our taxi driver readily shared with us at some point in our journey), that for a handy price of 35 Pesos, equivalent to 60 Euro cents (which we readily coughed up), the cars could take the brand new skyway, which happened to be absolutely empty!  The skyway took up 2 out of the 3.5 km of our route, and we made these 2 km in 2 min.  We still had to drive off it at some point, and make the remaining 500 m to the hotel at snail pace in the almost stationary traffic.

After almost 2 hours we finally made it the hotel.  The Manila City of Dreams Hyatt was definitely NOT a regular item on our travel itinerary.  Luckily (or not – depends on the time of your point of view), Nic slaved a couple of weeks on a business trip in India, and the hard-earned hotel points bought us 2 free nights in this over the top place.

Hotel security with metal detectors, K9 dogs and serious-looking guys in khakis with semi-automatic weapons seemed to be an excessive sign of hospitality, and while it definitely made an impression, it also made us wonder of the general safety situation in the Philippines.  This Fort Knox welcome could be quite appropriate for a place on the verge of a war, or a revolution – could we have missed some important recent news?…  Turned out, the security was not for the hotel, but for a full-scale casino on premises.  Which still was not logical – I would strip-search and metal-detect people leaving the gambling zone (to prevent them from taking too much money out with them), and not those coming in (for the more money they bring in, the better off the house will be, as it always wins anyway!…)

The next day we set out on exploring the city.  They say Manila was hard to love, and although we kept our minds and hearts open, and really tried to see the best sides of the place, we can second this.  You can definitely tell that the city is overcrowded – Wikipedia gently refers to it as a “highly urbanized city”, and no wonder that in 2018 Manila made it to the top of “The Most Populated Cities in the World” list.  The sheer numbers of people per square meter are unbelievable, and the mad traffic is only one side effect of this.  The second, and also quite visible one is garbage and pollution.  The never-ending flow of multi-lane traffic on the streets exhaust an unbelievable amount of shit into the atmosphere, making the air, buildings, and people look grey and dusty even in the pouring rain.  The canals and rivers in the city are so full of garbage, that you can’t see the water.  True, we have not seen the whole city, but we walked through a fair section of Manila’s Chinatown in Binondo district, and then the slightly nicer downtown district of Intramuros, and the garbage situation was approximately the same throughout.

Manila Chinatown gates
One of the cleaner canals of Manila, where the water (no matter which color) can actually be seen…

Our free fancy digs did not include breakfast, and we were too tight to cough up the exorbitant price 5-star establishments usually ask for a nondescript morning spread.  We were intent to find local fare, and enjoy it!  Turned out – not that easy…  Almost everything in both, Chinatown and Intramuros was closed.  It was Christmas Eve, and the locals sure took the celebrations seriously (of that later).  After a couple of hours of random search, we tucked out pride away, and agreed on fast food.  We wanted to experience the local Jollybee – the Philippine fast-food chain praised by everybody, including the late Anthony Bourdain.  Not so easy – a couple of joints we saw on the way remained steadily closed.  KFC seemed like the least poisonous choice, so in the end we landed there.  A monsoon-type rain suddenly started, so the decision had to be made fast, and we ran even faster unto the welcoming dry depth of the otherwise-despised fast-food joint.

I am not being snobbish in despising fast-food.  It has a place and time in everybody’s life.  Lucky, my childhood was lived without these “advances of Western civilization”, as a student I did not have money for fast-food (unbelievable as it sounds nowadays), but I enjoyed my share of Big Macs and cheeseburgers when I got my first job after graduation.  Sad as it sounds (and as it undoubtedly was), on the salary of a junior professor at one of the most prestigious universities in my home-country, one could only afford to eat out in MacDonald’s.  I did not give a shit, and probably did not even realize it was pathetic – my MacDonald’s years were thoroughly enjoyed!  These days, however, it is easy to find quick, easy and affordable solutions outside of the fast-food world, and MacDonald’s is only visited in the early hours of the morning, in the state of deep intoxication, when the body needs something fast to soak up the excessive alcohol and make it home…

Being in a fast-food joint sober was definitely a new experience of the past 15 or so years…  The wall of rain outside ensured we were not in a hurry, so we took our time getting used to the new sensation and familiarizing ourselves with the surroundings.  Several things were hard not to notice, even to the relative fast-food sober novices like ourselves:

  • Fast food restaurants had security guards at the entrance.  Not just the one we landed at, but every single one.  The security was not as tough as at the hotel, but a uniformed individual with a sidearm was spotted at the entrance to every establishment.
  • Somehow Italian food made it as far as the Philippines and got so incorporated into the local culture, that one of the main dishes in KFC was spaghetti.  Upon later acquaintance with the Philippines, spaghetti were spotted in other fast-food joints and not only.  Go figure…
  • KFC proudly sprouted a gravy station, where all the locals were drowning both, their chicken and spaghetti in loads of gravy from a 50-liter jar with a pump.  During our 1.5 hours stay in that particular establishment the jar was re-filled once…  If you ever wondered who the fuck consumes 50 liters of gravy in an hour, you would definitely find your answer and the target audience in the Philippines.

In the end we gave up on trying to wait the rain out, and dashed out of the dry and refrigerated environment of the KFC into the nearby train station.  The thorough study of the map during out fast-food confinement revealed that we could take a train to the walking distance from the hotel, and not be stuck in a taxi in a horrible Manila traffic.

The train was easy, fast, and reliable.  However, what looked like “walking distance” on the map, turned out a little more convoluted…  The Baclaran station closest to the hotel on the LRT line was in the middle of a mad market, which thanks to the monsoon rain was absolutely drowning.  We tried (unsuccessfully) to walk through or around it on dry land, but eventually gave up, and ploughed through together with the locals knee-deep in muddy waters filled with litter.  It took us a good 45 minutes just to find the way through and out of the market, and another 1.5 hours to walk to the hotel.  Hailing a cab would not have made any difference whatsoever, as the traffic tightly packed the streets without any movement.

We washed the market off our feet in the hotel, but weren’t ready to call it a night just yet.  It was Christmas Eve and like two mad dogs knowing no rest, we were intent on enjoying it!  We grabbed a cab (traffic or no traffic we were simply too tired of walking), and went to yet another part of the city, the Malate district, in search of the Oarhouse Pub, where Anthony Bourdain once celebrated his Manila Christmas to a mad karaoke supplemented by endless beers.  Alas, the Irish luck was not with us – the pub was closed (probably for Christmas, but there was no telling due to lack of any signage on the doors or anywhere else for that matter).  We ended up in the terrace bar of the Tambayan Capsule Hostel, which delighted us with chilled San Miguel beers (surprisingly good!) and Oktoberfest paraphernalia (home, sweet home!), but disgusted with their version of sisig, a traditional Philippine dish of fried pork with egg.  The Tambayan version was greasy, gristly, and covered with mayo.  I gave up after about a 2nd bite…  Well, Philippine cuisine will have to wait to be discovered and enjoyed.

Oktoberfest! 🙂
The dish posing as sisig on the Tambayan menu 🙁

Not content with how the Christmas Eve was unfolding so far, we located an Irish pub on the map, grabbed another cab, and after another painful 45 minutes fighting through downtown traffic we were there.  Mulligan’s Irish Pub in Makati offered outdoor seating, chilled Guinness and fantastic steak & kidneys pie – all our tired souls needed to finish the day and turn in for the night.

The next day we were off to Boracay!