PARADISE LOST?

PUERTO PRINCESA | THE PHILIPPINES

SAGADA | THE PHILIPPINES

PROVIDING SOME OF THE MOST BREATHTAKING SCENERY I’VE SEEN, I VISITED THE PHILIPPINE ISLANDS BEFORE THE RISE TO POWER OF MURDER-ENTHUSIAST RODRIGO DUTERTE. MUCH MORE THAN A TROPICAL PARADISE, THE LUSH BEACHES OF PALAWAN GAVE WAY TO MISTY, MOUNTAINOUS FORESTS IN THE NORTHERN HIGHLANDS, AN AREA OF MYSTERY AND DARK SECRETS.

Manila airport is where efficiency goes to die. I’d been warned previously that trying to navigate Ninoy Aquino Airport, is like Dante’s Inferno, only you live it instead of just reading it. I’ve always had a moral objection to airports that would rather you pay for a taxi to go to another terminal instead of waiting for the needlessly ineffective transport system. Thankfully I believe I’ve mentally blocked most of the ordeal trying to get my connecting flight south to Puerto Princesa. Trauma will do that to you.

Nestled in the middle of Palawan island, Puerto Princesa acts as the gateway to one of the new Seven Wonders of Nature – the Underground River. Incidentally, it’s also home to one of the world’s Wonder of Haircuts. I got my favourite ever haircut here in a shack by the roadside. I’ve never been able to replicate just how good I looked here, it was like the opposite of the haircut I received in Zimbabwe where the guy literally didn’t know what a pair of scissors were. Nowadays I feel like I can never truly reach my top potential unless I find that Filipino barber again.

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Castaways pulling up at Puerto Princesa lagoon

Haircuts aside, I piled into a small minivan that took me 80 kilometers north to a small coastal town. From here my group took some of the small outrigger boats around the cliffs and into the small, secluded lagoon which consealed the entrance to the cave system. The running joke here is that the Filippinos, despite being an island culture, are rubbish at swimming and terrified of falling in the water. To combat a terrifying plunge into the drink they’ve designed their boats with stabilisers on the sides – a lot like training wheels on a bicycle. They may be perfect for navigating the rough South China and Philippines Seas, but I’d imagine trying to park them in a busy harbour would be like playing a game of bumper cars. Fun always wins out over efficiency here in the Philippines, so it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that was completely intentional.

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Into darkness

Puerto Princesa is one of the world’s longest underground rivers, something I didn’t even know was a thing until recently. Most of the river is unexplorable, a word I didn’t even know wasn’t a thing until just now when my word processor underlined it in red. I bundled myself into one of the small canoes, and found myself upfront with the job of being “Lamp Man” and in charge of the large light which was attached via metal clips to a wet and exposed battery plonked on the bow. What could possibly go wrong?

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See you on the other side. That other side being the afterlife.

We paddled with increasing trepidation towards the mouth of the cave. Within minutes the gaping entrance passed overhead and we were consumed by darkness. That was until Lamp Man(tm) sprung into action, and with my clips attached to my exposed, and wobbling battery, we proceeded with care and complete safety. The Stygian black was punctuated by spears of light from other canoes as they glided noiselessly past. I shone the light around me as our guide pointed out features of the new subterranean world. Enormous stalactites hung from lofty ceilings, and bizarre formations dripped with the clinging wetness all around. At certain points we had to duck as our tiny boat passed through tight passages before opening up again in larger chambers. It was hard to guess the actual size of these rooms. Try as I might my lamp wasn’t able to fully penetrate the darkness. After a while we were forced back. The cave system here is huge, but due to the unforgiving geography and lack of oxygen, it’s not possible to explore as a mere tourist. Recently scientists discovered the caves actually exist on many levels and subterranean waterfalls connect the rivers to each other. A wonder indeed. Another wonder includes the fact that the cave features a rock formation that looks exactly like Sharon Stone from Basic Instinct. And this smut won the Seven Wonders of Nature?! Proof if any was needed that sex sells. Avert your eyes children, the last time I saw rocks this suggestive was in a cave in Vietnam. I wasn’t impressed then either.

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Honda Bay.

After my visit to the porno cave I got an unexpected, but welcome, visit from my cousin Joe and his now-fiancĂ© Fiona. We took a trip out to the nearby Honda Bay and tried our hand at some snorkeling and beach hopping. The beaches were nice but the snorkeling was rubbish. The reefs here looked terrible, but on the bright side I finally found Nemo. Ok so it was a brown clownfish rather than the bright orange Pixar version, but it was something, and it definitely cheered me up after I spent most of the morning fighting a loosing war against the snorkeling equipment we had rented from the reputable looking road side shack. If you’re ever in Palawan stay away from “Dodgy Jerome’s Dive Shop”. It does exactly what it says on the tin. Joe and Fiona decided they’d had enough of rubbing my nose in their blossoming romance, and headed up north to Donsol to swim with whale sharks. Which they did. And I’m not jealous ‘cos screw whale sharks. You’re called a shark, and you’re huge, yet you do nothing. What a waste. I have a one year old nephew, he has no teeth either and he’s still scarier than you.

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A misty morning in the highlands

Not satisfied with tropical beaches, warm sunshine, and free flowing beer, I decided to brave the concrete jungle of Manila once again. From here I’d arranged a three day tour up into the northern highlands. The schedule was a bit crazy. We’d meet up at a shopping centre at 10 pm and drive through the night to arrive in Sagada at around six in the morning. Before that though, I poked my head around the Filipino capital, and found myself in some hairy spots. You haven’t been backpacking until you’ve had your stuff stolen in a crowded marketplace. After a subtle tug on my man-bag I spun around without catching a glimpse of whoever had done it. I moved quickly onwards and found myself being followed by a young guy yelling at me that my bag was unzipped. It made a change from ladies yelling at me my fly was unzipped. Thankfully I own no worldly possessions worth stealing, unless you count a manky bottle of water and a tattered map as top class swag. Still, it was a wake up call. And speaking of wake up calls…….

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These carved idols were originally good luck charms to protect the rice terraces.

It’s 4 am and I’ve given up on sleeping. I’m in the middle of a packed jeep bouncing down a deserted highway surrounded by snoring Filipinos. I’m not a tall guy, in fact I’m painfully average in almost every way you can think off, but I’m by far the tallest here and the seating space reflects that. My knees feel as worn as an L.A. hooker’s as we pull in to a 24 hour Mc Donald’s for some breakfast. Buoyed by the kind of courage only a mass produced slab of white, egg-derived protein can give, I ask if I can swap seats with the guy in the front seat. I’m a good foot or so taller than him so I’m pretty confident I could take him if it came to it. Thankfully violence wasn’t necessary so I found myself finally drifting off to sleep as we began to climb up into the mountain provinces.

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Banuae rice terraces

When I awoke we had arrived at the viewing area for the magnificent rice terraces of Banaue. Often referred to as the Eight Wonder of the World (probably the tenth one of these I’d seen so far) they were created 2,000 years ago by the local Ifugao culture, and legend has it, that if spread out end to end they would stretch half way around the world. The enormity of them really has to be seen to be believed, pictures don’t paint a good sense of scale as they cover an entire valley descending ever downwards.

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Rice, rice baby

The terraces are fed from an ancient irrigation system cut into the rainforest surrounding them. It always amazes me the ingenuity from ancient people, how they were able to create such incredible structures without poisoning the planet in the process. And we call ourselves “advanced” today.

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The terraces extend all the way through the valley

Onwards to the small mountain town of Sagada. Here another tradition, equally ancient, but much more bizarre takes place. Long before the Spanish arrived the Igorot people of the northern Philippines began a unique burial practice, the results of which can still be seen today. High in the cliffs in a place called Echo Valley are the infamous Hanging Coffins. There is no better way to show your loved ones how much you care than by nailing them to the side of a precipice. After a short scramble up the cliff face we came face to face with several wooden coffins on the side of the rock facing into the valley. It is a tradition not commonly used today, but that acts as a grim reminder of the stories surrounding this part of the country. Tales abound that Echo Valley is one of the most haunted parts of the Philippines and that the coffins themselves act as a magnet to restless spirits. It’s a story you find yourself taking seriously, especially when you spot broken coffins and exposed human bones in several of the caves that dot the valley. It’s not just hanging the dead from cliffs that’s popular here.

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Hanging around in The Philippines. I’m dead funny.

A short drive to the other side of town takes you to the Lumiang Burial Cave which, as the name suggests, is packed from floor to ceiling with old and crumbling wooden coffins. Many of these have decayed and expose skulls and other assorted body parts to the flash of tourists cameras. Here in the failing light of a notoriously haunted cave system and knee deep in human remains, it feels like a different world to the blue skies and white beaches of Palawan. The only other non-Filipino in my group was an American girl with an unhealthy obsession with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She looked right at home.

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Horders are always a big problem. The Lumiang burial cave.

The Lumiang cave connects with the entrance of the Sumaguing Cave, and you can hike it if you’re fit enough and proficient with the petronus charm. I plumped for the shorter hike through Sumaguing, and a descent which took me into the bowels of hell – barefoot. Asian health and safety regulations always raise a smile. Here we were handed a small lantern, told to follow our guide who had already bounced ahead like a hyperactive mountain goat, and to take our shoes off when it got too slippy.

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That doesn’t look slippy at all.

We were down there for hours, possibly days who knows. I probably would have enjoyed it more if I wasn’t in constant fear I was going to end up as a pile of shattered bones and hair at the bottom of a pitch black ravine. These cave systems have got to claim just as many lives as the murder capital of Manila, the difference here most are bare footed tourists who volunteered for the experience.

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Thank god that’s over.

There are quite a lot of trekking opportunities around Sagada. Another hike we embarked on was the trip to Bomok-Ok Falls. There was no way I was swimming in the water here. The north of the Philippines is very different from the tropical south. Up here the water is just as beautiful but is insanely cold. I have terrible circulation in my extremities (well most of my extremities) and I felt I was at serious risk of developing a dead foot or arm. My main mission was to return home with all of my limbs intact. After surviving the cannibal infested Borneon jungle I thought it would be plain sailing from there. I hadn’t considered family friendly paddling pools.

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Bomok-Ok Falls.

That evening we visited a local pottery. It was no IKEA but I guess it was good. The pottery here was created from the local soil and used traditional methods yadda yadda yadda, but really all anyone was interested in was recreating the scene from Ghost, a scene in which a living-impaired Patrick Swayze recreates what a moral-impaired Donald Trump does with his female employees. Allegedly.

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Sagada. It’s a hell of a town.

At the crack of dawn the next morning we drove to the Kiltepan terraces view point, and after a short stumble down the hillside, gathered around to watch the sunrise. As the light began to filter through the sea of clouds, it illuminated an entire valley transformed with ancient terraces cut into the hill sides. Hundreds, thousands even, of paddy fields interconnected like enormous, verdant jigsaw.

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Life through a lens. Live in the moment people! (while I film you)

And so the descent from the fresh mountain air of the northern province began as we made the long journey south to tropical Manila. Along the way we passed scenery which was just out-of-this-world beautiful. Passing by the highest point in the Philippine highway system the road hugged impossibly steep mountainsides, many of which were completely terra-formed into green steps.

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Kiltepan

Bends would open out onto breathtaking vistas of terraced valleys and hills, leaving you in awe at the ancient engineering prowess on display. My only regret about the journey was the fact I couldn’t access my camera to take pictures of it. That and our driver swerved through the bends and switchbacks like someone was chasing him. My first priority should have been praying for safety, but really when you have views like these who cares about arriving alive? Huge, green mountains and sheer, lush chasms terraced as far as the eye could see. Pulitzer winning photo opportunities at every turn, and my camera was locked in the back. Banuae usually steals the headlines, but some of the terraces I seen on the way back down kicked the crap out of it in terms of scale and beauty.

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Another stunning terrace on my Filipino road trip.

Back safely – or as safe as it ever gets in Manila-  I got chatting to a British couple about traveling through India. I was heading there next on a flight which stopped over in Bangladesh before flying onward to Kolkata.  I’d heard that traveling there solo could be a bit “challenging”. They didn’t do much to dissuade my fears.

“India?

Everything you’ve heard is true”

Next time: India. Everything I heard was true. Plus you can’t even eat the cows.

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