Monday, January 30, 2012

Lunar New Year in the Philippines

After having two weeks to come home to the states for Christmas, I was lucky enough to have another week of holiday for Lunar, also known as Chinese, New Year. In my second opportunity to explore Asia outside of Hong Kong (Taiwan in August), I travelled with four fellow Hong Kong teachers to the island of Palawan in the Philippines. We were there for three full days and though all vacations go by too quick, this one truly couldn't have felt shorter. We really had a spectacular time.

We left Hong Kong for Manila on Monday morning and after a brief layover, we flew from Manila to Puerto Princesa, the largest city on Palawan. City might not be the best term though. Despite having 200,000 people, most of the houses have thatched roofs and there only seemed to be a handful of buildings that much larger than our hotel. The ride from the airport to our jungle hotel couldn't have possibly been any different from the ride from my flat to the Hong Kong airport. The hardly paved road was occupied by hardly clothed Filipino villagers, motorcycles, tiny crowded vans, a few old cars and tricycles, which are essentially carriages attached to motorcycles and serve as the island's taxi service. Not to mention the weather being in the 80s and sunny (low 30s Celcius).

Palawan is a big tourist destination within the Philippines due to its natural beauty. People on the island seemed to coexist with nature in a more respectful way than I'm used to, as evidenced by a hefty fee for littering. Despite being fairly undeveloped, Palawan and Puerto Princesa are also popular destination for Westerners. We went to the 'Tiki Restobar' on the first night where a band of Filipinos played great versions of western pop songs for a mostly white patronage. The place was outdoors, gorgeous and had cheap and delicious food and drinks. A killer combination.

The next day we went island hopping and snorkeling in the major bay of the island, Honda Bay. It doesn't get much more tropical than this. After riding our motor boat with the tour guide, two boatmen and a handful of other tourists, we stepped onto the white sand and got in the crystal clear water to look at dozens of different kinds of fishes. I had never been snorkeling before and I hope to go again before long. It's so easy to forget how vast the ocean is, even within a dozen yards of the shore. Between snorkel dives, we feasted on delicious barbecue cooked by our wonderful tour guide Joanne while drinking the juice of pandans directly out of the fruits, which look like coconuts. Underneath one of the hundreds of palm-like trees, you could purchase these massive fruits for less than $1 US and watch the merchant cut it open with a machete before placing your straw inside and enjoying the sweet flavor. 

The second full day, we went to Palawan's main attraction, the Underground River. After travelling by van for a few hours, we came upon the western coast of the island at the resort town of Sabang. After that, we took another boat across the churning ocean waves to a tucked away cave, we got in a row boat to travel down the river. After seeing this river, I can see why it's one of the 'New Seven Wonders of Nature.' As you travel, you feel like you're in some strange Disneyland ride through a fictional planet, but then you remember that the stalactites, stalagmites, bats and enormous limestone formations are all real and carved out over millions of years here on planet earth. It was tough to take pictures due to the darkness, but I did my best.

On the third full day, we went to variety of places around the city of Puerto Princesa, including a crocodile reserve, ziplining area and a firefly river tour. This confirmed that this island is truly all about natural majesty. The ziplining and firefly watching provided a nice contrast from each other. With one, we were able to see stunning views of a vast valley and coastline, while flying though the air and pumping adrenaline. With the other, we were quietly guided down a calm river in the black night, watching the trees light up and the stars above shining brighter than I've ever seen. The light breeze prevented the bugs from lighting up all that much, but we saw some and even were able to catch a few and let them illuminate our hands as we drifted through the brackish water. I didn't even know there was brackish water, though I suppose it makes sense that a river on an island would be slightly but not entirely salty.

We reluctantly flew home the next day and now I sit on my bed in Clearwater Bay, HK, sorting through photos and wishing that I didn't have to go back to work on Monday. After this trip, my desire to travel is even stronger. Lucky for me, I'm in an awesome location to do so and my next trip will be in April for Easter break. I'm not sure where it will be but I hope it's half as inspiring, educational and flat-out fun as this trip was!

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