After 40 hours of transit via Frankfurt, Hong Kong and Manila, having used 4 flights, 3 different airlines and having spent 2 nights in planes and at airports we and our luggage safely reached our first destination: Bacolod on the Philippines. Our planned (and longed for) sleepover on the way in a hotel in Manila unfortunately did not materialize, as one of the flights was delayed by 5 hours. But hey, if this year is going to teach us something, it will be flexibility! Our friends in Bacolod, however, where totally on time to pick us up and make us feel welcome! And yes, the shower and the bed in our hotel room also made us feel welcome (I am sure the people around us also appreciated us having a shower :-)!
A first highlight was the Summer Camp for young folks hosted by our church at the Granada Ecopark near Bacolod in the province of Negros Occidental. April is still the dry season (more or less) and on top of that school vacation time in the Philippines. We had the wonderful chance to spend a whole week with the young ladies and gentlemen of our Filipino Congregation. Activities amongst others included water sports, cricket, photography, leather craft, giving small presentations, horse riding, roughing it in an adventure park, shooting with bow and arrow and more. We were very much inspired by the desire and passion of these teenagers to learn, grow and become better. And by the fun it was to be around them. Simply a very special bunch!
Tucked away in the mountains is this beautiful mountain resort. Driving time from Bacolod varies between 40 and 90 minutes depending on the chosen mode of transport (e.g. private car vs. regional bus, that stops whenever there is a slight chance for letting one more passenger hop on board or onto the roof). We had a private car going up – thank you Mario!! – and the regional bus coming down). While “Mountain Resort” sounds tranquil and peaceful, it also attracts many young people, who are looking for a nice place to hang out, barbecue and party. So there is something for everyone! We opted for the magnificent hike to the 7 waterfalls (approx. 3 hrs incl. return). A b s o l u t e l y b e a u t i f u l ! And afterwards a dip in the hot sulfur springs to relax and unwind!
We had heard quite a bit about the Philippines from good friends, but nothing beats first hand experience. For example when it comes to local means of transportation. Let´s start with the Jeepneys. Based on old Willys Jeeps, which were left by the Americans after WW2 a whole mode of transportation has evolved since. Just attach a couple of metres to a regular Jeep front (or any modern equivalent), equip it with 2 long benches et voilà – you have a Jeepney that can transport a whole basketball team including cheerleaders. Only catch: they are not very high, which I (or more respectively my head) learned the hard way. Equally innovative are the tricycles, which pretty much turn a motorbike into a very versatile transportation capsule. You even get the Mercedes-version of that, which we took from the airport in Puerto Princesa to our accomodation today. It nicely fitted us (3 passengers), 2 large Samsonite suitcases, all our hand luggage and of course the (very friendly) driver!
The Puerto Princesa Underground River. Rated as one of the new 7 wonders of Nature and also an UNESCO world heritage site. What´s nice to know is, that the locals very much appreciate this magnificent site, too! According to our tourguide approx. 60% of all visitors are Filipinos! But first you need to get there. We opted for the convenience package: Van transfer with aircon (2h one way from PP), lunch including 1 bottle of coke, boat transfer to the entry point, boat tour into the cave with tourguide and VAT all inclusive for 1.500PHP/person (approx. 30€). The cave itself is surrounded by pristine tropical rainforest and the wildlife that goes with it. Sharing a boat with 8 people, we ventured into the spectacular cave, which is a complete ecosystem in itself. Bats, snakes, crabs, insects, etc. in a “spectatular limestone karst landscape” (UNESCO). And tons of stone formations, on which you can go wild with your creativity to come up with what these might look like. On some of the walls we discovered crosses, which early explorers had drawn for their protection as they believed demons to live in the cave. We also saw an inscription dating back to 1937 made by two American officers during an expedition.
Question: How do you find out, if a laundry service is good or not? Answer: Take your clothes there and if they come back with more marks then when you originally handed them over and previously white Polo- and T-shirts suddenly have a touch of grey you intuitively might be able to guess the correct answer. So what´s the best thing to do? Take it easy and keep smiling!!
Expect a 45 minute ride from Puerto Princesa – and while there are lots of tour operators offering day packages, this one is reasonable to self-organize! We were in the lucky position to enjoy a private “Jeepney” ride there and back with friends. But you can also take a regular Jeepney or tricycle. Just ask a local what a fair rate is for either transport device. Arriving early (not later than 7:30AM) is key to charter a boat for the day (1.500PHP for 6 pax – which is approx. 30EUR – with each additional pax costing 250PHP). Also don´t forget the environmental fee (40PHP/person) and the entrance fees for the individual islands (per person): Cowrie Island 75PHP, Pandan Island 800PHP, Starfish Island 50PHP, Luli Island 60PHP, Pambato Reef 50PHP. We enjoyed a nice lunch buffet for 200PHP/person at Cowrie Island. Some of the islands we found more suitable for beach fun and just being in the water (Cowrie and Luli), others better for snorkeling (Starfish, Pambato). Pandan we skipped, as we were not sure if the 10-fold entry fee was worthwhile or not. And make sure you have enough sun screen and drinking water available!!
It was one of those beautiful moments that create a lifelong memory. A pleasantly warm and almost windstill evening. Being together with your loved ones in a paddle boat out on the Iwahig river, away from all lights of civilisation. Surrounded by mangrove forests. The only sounds to be heard: the sound of water as it gently laps against the boat and the humming of what must be thousands of crickets. Above in the sky the never ending beauty of the stars with a clearly visible Milky Way, the Southern Cross, Orion and many other star constellations. Below, in the water, bioluminescent plankton. And in the mangrove trees flashing fireflies.
Ok dear Philippines. That´s not funny. You have the BEST MANGOS that we have ever tasted!! That´s probably why it´s your national fruit. Problem is, we can´t go back to eating any mango at home now (they just don´t taste the same) and we can´t fly to the Philippines everytime we want to eat a mango!! So now what??