Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Philippines vs. Indonesia: A Traveler's Companion

This post was spurred by a conversation between Marc Hiller and myself (plus Alicia and his girlfriend Erica) over sunday brunch. He and Erica lived in Jakarta for many years and have travelled Indonesia extensively. They are both fluent in Bahasa Indonesia. I've spent three weeks in both the Philippines and Indonesia this year.

He posed a very simple question to me: Which did you prefer?

A simple question indeed. With a very complicated answer. Here's the fruit of that discussion, with a few other categories thrown in. Remember, everyone's experiences are different, these is just my impressions, coupled with the aforementioned discussion.

Getting There and Around
Philippines. No question. Tickets from Beijing to Manila start at $75 round trip. Domestic flights on Cebu Pacific were under $100. Meanwhile, we spent $600 just getting to Bali from Beijing, plus pricier domestic flights. Both countries have ever-changing ferry and boat schedules, so no edge to either there. Honorable mention to Indonesia for having mopeds available everywhere. Jeepney's and trikes are pretty awesome though...

Backpacker Friendly
Philippines. Unless you speak Bahasa, there is a limit to how far off the beaten path you can wander in Indonesia, although really, a seasoned traveller can go just about anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, the majority of Filipinos speak excellent English along with the native Tagalog, which has familiar hints of Spanish as well. Traveling the Philippines is also a remedy for the over-touristed Thailand/Laos/Vietnam circuit which is all too common these days. I've heard the Philippines of today compared to the Thailand of 40 years ago, before it became too popular. Go now and go often, before it's too late.

Tossup. This is tough. Both countries offer exceptional value for accommodations on the beach, a bottle of beer, or a delicious meal. Get away from Bali or Boracay and you can easily stretch your money further than many other S.E. Asian options.

Indonesia. With hints of Thai cooking mixed in, Indonesia offers banana pancakes for breakfast, fried noodles or gado-gado for lunch, and tempeh curry or fresh fish for dinner. The Philippines' only entry in this category is Adobo Chicken with Garlic Rice, which is absolutely delicious, but one dish is, i believe, the opposite of variety. Still neither country is a match for Thailand, or even China for that matter.

Philippines. Not really a fair fight, since Filipinos are arguably the world's more welcoming people (Subic notwithstanding). Most everywhere i went (again, see Subic), i encountered the friendliest people to date. This is not to say Indonesians are unwelcoming, but i bet knowing a bit if Bahasa would open up doors that would otherwise be closed.

Indonesia. If ancient temples, tribes untouched by Western hands, and diversity are your thing, you can hardly do better than Indonesia. And if these aren't your things, they just might be after an extended visit. With 17,000 islands and almost 600 languages, there's no shortage of variety.

Indonesia. I was partial to the rocky landscapes, sky-piercing volcanoes, and beautiful architecture.

Another Tossup. It's really hard to beat Boracay, given that it is the perfect beach. However, just for sheer volume of beaches to choose from, not to mention the beautiful ones we found, Indonesia is definitely a strong contender.

Indonesia. I'm not an expert by any means, and i've only logged about 50 dives, but there's a reason why Komodo, Sulawesi, Sumatra, and the Banda Islands consistently rank among the best diving in the world. Having enjoyed a liveaboard in Komodo, i certainly know why: it's nothing short of incredible. Now, i haven't yet done Tubbataha or Apo reef, but the ten or so dives i did were no match for Komodo. The Coron Wreck Diving of northern Palawan does not disappoint, however.

Souvenir Shopping
Indonesia. I want everything in my house to be Indonesian. Or Tibetan. Please. Indonesia just does handicrafts exceptionally well. I didn't see anything in the Philippines worth buying.

The Result?
Both countries are relatively cheap once you get there. Both have amazing beaches. Both have interesting people and cultures and have stunning landscapes.

For the traveller on a budget or with a short time frame, take the Philippines. It hasn't been overly touristed yet, they speak English, and it doesn't take much searching to find your own personal paradise. Cebu Pacific has dozens of flights from Manila to the furthest reaches of the country to meet anyone's needs. Plus, the cheap international flight options to Manila make the base investment cost low. I sound like a salesman.

However, if you are going for 3-6 months, are a seasoned traveller and want to take it slow and have an adventure, Indonesia is the place. Every island will have its own flavor and i hear you can pick up Bahasa in only a few weeks.

So to answer the original question, as long as flights are too cheap to ignore, i'll keep hitting the Philippines. But when i finally shove off for a multi-month excursion, you can bet i'll be spending a few months in Indonesia.

But really, i recommend doing both. Life is too short not to.


Friday, December 17, 2010

Port Barton, Sabang, Clark and Subic

I've already put this off long enough, so i will wrap up the last week of Philippines in one mega post.

We left El Nino with an early morning, 5 hour jeepney ride, bound for the lazy town of Port Barton, where we did absolutely nothing for two days. And it was great. Here's our jeepney.

Honestly, the best thing to do in Port Barton is nothing. We stayed at Summer Homes resort and had a nice bungalow in a beautiful garden setting right on the beach. It rained all of day one, so we slept, had a few meals and slept more. Day two, we set up our hammocks on the beach, swam a little, played frisbee, drank beers and tropical beverages, and relaxed. We also played with a huge Python. Port Barton: Done.

We then took a boat to Sabang for one night as an alternative to Puerto Princesa. There are no ATM's in Palawan outside of Puerto Princesa and Coron and we had run out of cash, so we stayed at the 2nd nicest resort in town because they accept credit cards. It turned out to be a great deal because they included a wonderful breakfast and arranged transport to Puerto Princesa the next morning for a third of the normal price. Sabang turned out to have the nicest beach we'd seen and we spent our precious few hours splashing in the huge waves. If we knew before, we would have planned a few extra days there. Next time i suppose.

Leaving Palawan, we flew to Manila for the Manila Spirits Ultimate Frisbee Tournament, which was held two hours away in Clack. Clark is home to a former US Air Force base which was vacated in 1991. Interesting history, Clark still has ten's of thousands of prostitutes leftover from those days. It also has a fairly large population of Filipinos in their 20's who are half American. Go figure.

So, we played ultimate. Our men's team won the Open division on Friday and our mixed team won the B Pool championship on Sunday. Overall, it was a great three days of disc, with a few awesome parties mixed in. Highlights from the parties were: face painting, carnival games, awesome filipino friends, a live reggae band, and green man (spot him in the middle picture below).

We had one day off before our group flight to Beijing, so we decided to head to the beach town of Subic. Almost everything about that day was an adventure. It is a place i would never recommend to any tourist, and i can safely say i will never go back, but i'm glad i went. Our hotel turned out to be perfectly adequate, and cheap. But we soon found out why it was so cheap: we were not in a great part of town (if there even was one). Stepping outside the hotel, you are mobbed by "Parking Attendants" who wish to "help" you get taxi's or offer you "advice" about the town. If you let one of these people help you in anyway, they will demand forcefully that you owe them money. Some "helpful" things that required payment include: not leaving us alone as we walked to the nearest bank, standing next to me while i haggle the price for a jeepney, or my favorite, pointing me to the 7-11 as i'm standing in front of it preparing to go inside.

First, there weren't any taxi's to be had, so transportation was at the mercy of the jeepneys. With 15 people to shuttle around, we never would have arrived anywhere together. I took the initiative to secure a private jeepney ride to a beach that was recommended by the hotel. We piled in and off we went, Parking Attendant included. After getting lost and going too far, we eventually found not the right place and went inside. Parking Attendant tried to rip me off, but he was only able to get an extra $1 from me, which seemed like a small price to pay to get him off my back. The total price ended up being $8 for 15 people. Man- i can't get over how much i resemble my brother Mike in these pictures.

We headed down to the beach where it was already dark, and we met Frank. Frank was the caretaker of the beach, and he looked after us well. He informed us it would probably not be safe to go buy food and beer ourselves, as Subic has not yet acquired the manners and acceptance shown by the rest of the Philippines. He sent someone off to buy us a case of beer, gin, chicken, fish, veggies, and rice for consumption on the beach. Frank turned out to be a blessing, completely trustworthy and at the same time, shamed by the behavior of his local countrymen. He turned a potentially miserable adventure into a delight. Here's Frank with Baby Girl.

While waiting for the food, i made friends with a group of off-duty policemen and women who were getting (already?) drunk and singing karaoke in a private beach hut. They poured me shots of apple vodka and made me sing with them. I chose "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" and got a score of 96 (according to the scoring system in the karaoke machine). My friends later joined me and, eventually, took over the karaoke machine. Below is our food hut on the left, and karaoke hut on the right.

Um, i think we all got drunk and went home eventually. A few of us went out for dinner and drinks later. I ordered what must have been the worst burger ever made. The meat(?) was inedible, but no sooner had i ejected it from the bun than Baby Girl popped the entire lump of meat(?) into his mouth, making (faking?) sounds of delight. He was never the same again.

Also the mayor of Subic is named Bong Gordon. Awesome. Still not going back.

And that basically wraps up our vacation. Headed back to Chicago and Colorado shortly for the holidays. It sure has been an exciting year.


Monday, November 29, 2010

El Nido and the Bacuit Archipelago

We left Coron and embarked on a 6 hour ferry ride through stunning seascapes to the fabled land of the Bacuit Archipelago and the northern Palawan paradise of El Nido. I was endeared by El Nido almost immediately; the friendly locals, the beachfront restaurants, the trendy backpacker cafes, the random disco clubs, not to mention the seemingly endless host of uninhabited islands with private beaches.

The main attraction of El Nido is, in fact, island hopping. There are so many islands worth visiting, you need four days to cover them all. There's big lagoon, small lagoon, twin lagoon and secret lagoon; there's sunset beach, seven commando beach, and secret beach. All promise fantastic snorkeling as well, and while Therese is a qualified snorkeler, i'm not built for it. I've suffered debilitating ear infections since i was a child, and pouring sea water into my ears is not my idea of awesome. Diving, on the other hand, rarely gives me the same problem. Equalizing the pressure underwater generally keeps water from entering your ears, resulting in a happy Kev.

We got lucky on our first night there. We were staying at Greenviews Resort, about 5 minutes outside of El Nido. Highly recommended. Great staff, bungalow's and very reasonable prices. Right outside the front gate is Plankton Divers, a brand new dive shop. We chatted with the owner a bit and she gave us a deal we couldn't refuse: private boat with two divemasters, three dives, brand new equipment, lunch and drinks, AND island hopping during our surface intervals, for about $60 per day. That's a steal folks. Our divemaster turned out to be an old Ultimate player in Manila too, we had a lot of the same friends. Look up Jeff Panelo if you need to do some El Nido Diving.

We did two days of diving, 6 dives total, and made it to many of the most interesting lagoons and beaches in the process. Imagine taking your surface interval between dives here:

Or here...


And as is the custom now on this blog, i present for your consideration, "Scuba Diving in El Nido". Notable highlights include the awesome color-changing cuttlefish, the blue-spotted stingray, and the playful anemone fish. True fact: Therese has decided all anemone fish actually want to be petted, they just don't know how it works yet.

And a few stills... three nudibranchs and some awesome anemone fish.

Other than that, we mainly just relaxed in the town, ate good food, and randomly bumped into friends from Beijing. As if the world isn't already small enough, therese and i were hanging out in Small Lagoon, where there were only two other snorkelers at the time, and they happen to be marc and veronica from beijing's ultimate frisbee scene. The next day, we found jim and nina sitting at a restaurant having dinner in a remote beachfront restaurant. What are the odds?

Tragically, it wasn't all Nudibranches and Remote Beach Happy Fun Time. It was also Jellyfish Terror Hell Time. Poor therese got stung when we were playing frisbee in the shallow water in front of our resort. For the next two hours, her life would consist of agonizing pain. Imagine taking your lower lip and pulling it up over your head, and then being stung by some jellyfish. That's pretty much what it looked like. Some dude from the resort heard her and administered immediate first aid, which consisted of nescafe and hot water followed by vinegar. I'm not sure if it worked or not, because therese never really stopped weeping terror-filled pain-tears-of-agony, but maybe it would have been worse with it. Who knows? Hopefully we never have to find out.

The next day, i had the pleasure of sitting on a crown of thorns starfish that our dive master had taken from the dive and left on the stern (i'm so nautical) of our boat, with the purpose of killing it later. Wikipedia says:
The thorns are very sharp and are capable of piercing through standard wetsuits and other clothing. They are also venomous. The crown-of-thorns produces a neurotoxin which can be released through its spines. Not only are the wounds themselves serious, but the neurotoxin can cause a sharp stinging pain that can last for hours, as well as nausea and vomiting.
Painful, certainly, but also only a small fraction of the misery therese felt.

A few more random shots from our three days there, and that will wrap up El Nido in a nice little blogable package.

Spell check doesn't know what to do with "blogable" and i'm fine with that.


p.s. Two more posts to go! Up next: Port Barton and Sabang. You know you can't wait! No more diving videos, i promise.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Barracuda Lake and Island Hopping

Wreck diving was awesome. However, the most unique dive was at Barracuda Lake, which is called "The craziest dive site in the Philippines." It's located on Coron Island proper, whose only inhabitants are the indigenous Tagbanua people, one of the original inhabitants of the Philippines. The island is protected as sacred land, and only a few locations are even open to tourists. We were actually staying in Coron City, which is not on Coron Island, but on the main island of Busuanga.

So you enter this beautiful bay with jagged limestone cliffs all around, and you swim to a set of stairs, which are really just narrow, unstable 2x2 boards. You then do a fairly strenuous 10 minute hike through sharp limestone formations along a rugged set of "stairs". In full scuba gear. It's not an easy climb, but very worth it.

Barracuda Lake's top 4 meters are cool fresh water, with salt water below. The point where they meet is a thermocline, meaning thin layer where surface and deep water meet, usually with a sharp change in temperature. Passing through this one is like going from the swimming pool at 75F into the hot tub at 105F. It's almost too hot to bear, but fortunately you can keep going deeper and pass into the salt water layer where the temp drops to a more bearable 90F. Amazingly, you can actually see where these layers meet, as they don't mix very well. The layer where the fresh water meets the thermocline is like oil sitting on water, or the meniscus of water on a glass. The deeper layer where the salt water meets the thermocline is eerie and plays tricks with your mind. Sometimes you see ghosts, like wisps of clouds rolling away. Other times the mixing layers turns all the water blurry, so everything is out of focus.

As if the dive wasn't cool enough already, we ended up finding a bunch of little cleaner shrimp and baby catfish that will munch on the dead skin from your hand, if you let them. What a trip.

Video Time! I put together the random few that i took from this dive and added some still shots. Yay!

I ended up with an ear infection after day one, but that didn't stop me from jumping back in on day three. On our day off we did a relaxing island-hopping tour. The highlight, besides the amazing scenery, was Kayangan Lake. Also on the protected Coron Island, it is known as the cleanest lake in the Philippines. A must-see on any trip to Coron.

On the island hopping tour.

Kayangan Lake

Next up: El Nido and the Bacuit Archipelago


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Coron Wreck Diving

Spotty internet coverage prevented me from posting much while traveling, but we've returned from another an incredible adventure. I'll do my best to recap it all as quickly and lovingly as i can.

From Puerto Princesa, we flew north about an hour to Coron, a well-known dive spot famous for its wrecks. On September 24th, 1944, US forces sunk a fleet of Japanese Ships during WWII. In total there's about 12 wrecks you can dive in the area.

We did two days of diving with Sea Dive and would highly recommend them to stay and dive with. We had one dive master that we didn't love, but that would be our only dive-related complaint. Their boat was awesome and hospitality at the resort was great with reasonable pricing all around. The food was good, but both Coron Bistro and Out Of Africa are nearby, offering truly great food. Oh, i definitely recommend 2nd or 3rd floor rooms, as the first floor was really noisy. Paper thin walls and a family with little kids next door made for a rough night.

We had 3 full days in Coron, did 5 total dives comprised of 4 different wrecks and the thermal Barracuda lake. I had never been wreck diving before, and these may have spoiled me a bit. It was incredible. The bay itself gets relatively little circulation and currents are low. This makes the diving a little easier and preserves the sunken ships as well, but it also means the water is filthy. All that matter decomposing over the last 70 years doesn't get swept away very often, and the water appears ripe with plankton and moss.

This trip, we were prepared for ample underwater adventures with a new camera/underwater housing combo, the Canon G9. I took dozens of videos on these dives, and rather than post link after link, i actually assembled them into one 8 minute video with some sweet music overdubbed for your viewing and listening pleasure. The four dives in this video are: Kyogo Maru, Tangat Maru, Irako, and Olympia Maru. I'm thinking Maru probably means Tanker, while Irako was a refrigeration ship. The schematics below show the sea floor orientation and rough outline.

Here we go!

And a few random pictures that didn't come out well in the video, or weren't caught at all. First, a cool turtle with some remora's tagging along for the ride.

Next, a few stills of the school of Jackfish we saw on the Irako dive. There were thousands and they let me swim along with them for a while.

Last, a few colorful scorpionfish. These guys are cool because they blend in with the surroundings and you feel awfully proud when you spot one.

Next up, possibly tomorrow: Barracuda Lake and some incredible island pics!