The new slogan for Philippines Tourism is “It’s more fun in the Philippines” and you know what? I would have to agree. Despite the fact that he Philippines boasts of beautiful beaches and diving, English-speaking people and cheap shopping it is still the last place most people think to visit in Asia because it lacks infrastructure. Personally, I kind of like that, but visitors are also deterred by communist and Muslim insurgencies and bombings and kidnappings by al-Qaida-linked extremists in the south.
A U.S. travel warning last Thursday cited the risk of terrorist activity – I say that’s good news and maybe the Philippines won’t be ruined by tourism gone wild the way Laos and Thailand have been. We need more places where you can enjoy a cheap holiday. The truth is, there is plenty to do in the Philippines and a growing infrastructure to support international tourists.
Case in point – Puerto Princesa – a tour of Honda Bay and a few days in in Puerto Princesa won’t cost you an arm and a leg. The city still evokes the looks and feel of a small bustling town just like most Philippine cities. Trikes and motorbikes are everywhere and regularly jam into a traffic. But hand it to the locals for keeping the place clean and friendly for tourists. Stiff anti-littering laws are in effect.
Getting around in Puerto is easy. Grab a trike or motorbike taxi. Do they give Hong Kong’s or Saigon’s rickshaw drivers lessons? Well, in Puerto, ask a trike driver for a place to stay or dine and more often than not, they will deliver you to a place you’ll enjoy.
But the best bet is to get away from it all by heading 12 KM east of the city. Head to Honda Bay in Sta. Lourdes wharf, Tagbanua village. It’s a half hour drive by trike or jeepney from Puerto. There you can charter a pump boat to hop the islands in an incredible sparkling bay that is ideal for snorkeling and diving.
30-minutes out from the wharf, you will come to your first stop, Pandan Island. The fine white-sand beach slopes down to a small drop offs with good reefs. Aquarium fish abound even as you stare down from your boat. Next is Snake Island. Its powdery sandbar winds like a snake submerged under water. Lunch will be served here.
After the meal, lay back in one of the huts along the beach for a snooze or just to enjoy the seascape view. Your last stop will be Starfish Island. Starfish and coral are strewn along the shore making snorkeling difficult. But that’s okay, there are only few fish in the water here. There are other islands out in the bay and a single day is not enough to reach them all.
Your Honday Bay day tour will be over before sunset. And then it’s time to return to the city and get a piece of the nightlife. Club Dos is a live music bar which occasionally stages tribal performances. It’s a party place with a pants-and-shoes dress code. No shorts, no slippers.
Grab dinner at the Vietnamese restaurant inside Viet Ville, a 15-minute ride by trike from the city. Chao long beef noodles cost around Php 100; French bread filled with roasted or ground pork, less than Php 50. Vietnamese cuisine is a little spicy and saltier than you might be used to. Besides the food, the Vietnamese restaurant evokes a different kind of ambience. It sits right in the middle of the former refugee camp for the Vietnamese boat people of the late 1970s. The camp’s Buddhist temple and ramshackle bunkhouses still stand. There is a definite feel of the Vietnam War going on here – but don’t worry – it’s safe.
If you want an even more exotic meal, try tamiloc – the local delicacy. Actually, it’s a mangrove wood worm. The locals will hack the trunk of a rotting mangrove tree; pluck out the semitransparent, slimy, rubbery worm; and cook it in sauce or just boil it in salted water. It tastes like oysters. It’s not for everyone.
If you don’t feel so adventurous, there are plenty of local restaurants that serve good seafood at very low prices.
Yeah, you better avoid the Philippines – I’ll keep it all to myself!
Some of the pics in this post are my own but I’ve also used some CC images from Flickr – check out the photo streams of Lona&Queta, cyberbaguioboy and The Wandering Angel for more great photos of Honda Bay and Puerta Princesa.