Posts Tagged With: beaches

Palawan

I’d never really thought of going to the Philippines until earlier this year. In January we had a week off work for Chinese New Year, and the Philippines was the cheapest place to fly to from Malaysia, so we took our chance to experience a country that doesn’t feature on nearly as many backpacker itineraries as the mainland south east Asian countries, or even Indonesia. This is unfortunate as it has an incredible amount to offer, including seven thousand islands and a Latino culture that is completely unique in the region. One of the main challenges for any visitor to the Philippines is choosing which islands to go to. It is the world’s second largest archipelago and to see even a small percentage of it could take months. As we only had a week it was important that we chose well. We didn’t really want to spend any time in Manila so this ruled out Luzon, the largest island. The central Visayas range was still recovering from the devastating effects of Typhoon Haiyan, and the large southern island of Mindanao, home to the great Manny Pacquiao, was unadvisable due to problems with an insurgency. All of this limited our options somewhat. Helpfully, a colleague suggested Palawan, the long thin island just to the north east of Borneo. Despite knowing absolutely nothing about it we decided we would give it a try. It felt like we might actually be getting off the beaten track for once, something that’s nearly impossible in south east Asia these days.

When our flight touched down at Puerto Princesa airport it certainly felt like we’d achieved our objective. It looked far more like an airfield than an international airport. Some promotional literature referred to Palawan as “the last frontier.” This seemed to be quite an apt description as Puerto Princesa definitely felt like a frontier town, a place that’s only real use is as a departure point for other more beautiful or interesting destinations. For most tourists in Palawan, that destination is El Nido; a six hour journey from Puerto Princesa and reputedly one of the highlights of the Philippines. However, we were short on time so we decided to head to the sleepy sounding village of Port Barton instead. We could have paid an extortionate price to take a private jeep from the airport but that’s definitely not how I roll. It was the cheap, cramped minibus all the way! Throughout the journey I was struck by just how sparsely populated the island was, and by how little infrastructure existed. Twenty kilometres before we reached Port Barton we turned off the main road and onto a dirt track. In parts the road was under construction, in other parts it just disappeared completely. Now we certainly were off the beaten track, the track didn’t even exist!

Upon arrival in Port Barton, we were required to register at the tourist office before walking along the beach to our accommodation. There are probably more stunning beaches in the Philippines but I doubt there are many that are as relaxing. Summer Homes, our accommodation, was one of the best places I have stayed in South East Asia. It had a stunning garden setting, excellent food and extremely friendly and attentive staff. Just for good measure the sunsets were absolutely stunning. This was a place to relax hard. The only time the tranquility was broken was by monkeys playing on the corrugated iron roof of our bungalow.

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The highlight of our time in Port Barton was an island hopping trip. Our guide Dong-dong (yes that really was his name) wore the demeanour of a man who had never been stressed in his life. With his job though, what would there be to stress about? When he turned off the engine, so we could stop to snorkel, the silence was breathtaking. We are so used to noise pollution in our everyday lives that to have pure uninterrupted silence in such a glorious setting was something truly memorable. The snorkelling was also far better than the diving we had done in Krabi, a month beforehand. After viewing a stunning array of fish and coral we got back on the boat and continued to pass by islands that looked so deserted that Robinson Crusoe would probably approve. We stopped on one such pristine island where Dong-dong cooked a fabulous lunch of barbecued fish. The rest of the day was spent snorkelling, lying on the beach and meeting baby turtles. Tough life.

Far too soon our time in paradise had to come to an end. There was just the small matter of the local bus, complete with chickens inside, about thirty people on the roof, and all of Port Barton’s rubbish strapped to the rear, back to Puerto Princesa. Sometimes the journey itself is the experience!

Sitting at the airport the next day, I reflected on one travel brochure’s claim that Palawan was the island that inspired Alex Garland to write “The Beach.” This may or may not be true, but the Philippines were indeed Garland’s favourite country. If Palawan was this unspoilt now, what must it have been like when he visited in the late 1980s? I would say visit now, before it becomes more frequented, but I just got the impression that this place will never get spoilt.

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TRAVEL TIPS

As previously stated, I cannot recommend Summer Homes highly enough. Some of the cheaper rooms don’t have hot water but if you’re a hardcore traveller this shouldn’t bother you! Find info about them at www.portbarton.info/summerhomes.

Categories: Asia, Palawan, Philippines | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Beach” – Phi Phi Ley

“The Beach” by Alex Garland is one of my favourite ever books. I was given a copy of it as a Christmas present when I was seventeen years old, and it enraptured me so much I had finished all 450 pages by Boxing Day. Reading the book’s enticing and evocative tales of overnight train journeys to Surat Thani and island hopping in the Gulf of Thailand awakened my own wanderlust. Not much more than a year later I went travelling to India and South East Asia, and I’ve been sating my voracious appetite for travel ever since then. A short time after I read the book, the film version was released. Although I’ve since grown to like it, at the time I hated it. Far too many changes were made to the storyline (Richard is ENGLISH not American!!) and one very important character was completely omitted. One thing that the filmmakers did get right though was their choice of locations. The idyllic Maya Bay on the island of Phi Phi Ley, in the Andaman Sea was an inspired choice for the principal location. Since the release of the film, Maya Bay has become one of southern Thailand’s most visited spots.631

Prior to December, I’d visited Thailand twice before but hadn’t managed to visit Maya Bay. In 2007 I made it as far as Ko Phi Phi, only for it to rain the entire time I was there, making a trip across the bay impossible. In late 2013 an opportunity arose to return. Janey and I decided to spend Christmas on Ko Phi Phi, as the culmination of our three week trip around Laos and Thailand. As Christmas Day was spent relaxing hard on the beach, we decided we would head to Maya Bay on Boxing Day, which seemed very apt. Fate had other ideas though. Boxing Day came around and I found myself bedridden with a nasty bout of food poisoning. As we were due to leave for Krabi the next day, I cursed my luck. As beautiful as Ko Phi-Phi is, as third visit seemed distinctly unlikely. However, the next day I was sufficiently recovered to attempt to get to Phi Phi Ley in the morning in time to get back for the afternoon ferry to Krabi. So, nothing risky about that then……

Most visitors to Maya Bay choose to take one of the big tourist boats, for a fee of about 400 Baht, which takes them to Maya Beach, amongst a number of other locations. However, due to our time constraints, we decided to pay a local fisherman to take us on his long tail boat. There are loads of these guys scattered round Ko Phi Phi. We just had to find the dodgy one! The fact that he lit up a massive joint, just after embarking on the voyage probably should have told us that this wasn’t the most reputable of tour operators. In hindsight then, it wasn’t too surprising when, a few minutes out to sea, the engine gave a cough and a splutter and breathed it’s last. For about twenty minutes the stoned fisherman tried to fix the engine with his tool of choice; a machete, naturally. It didn’t take long for us to get a bit aggravated. Not only were we definitely not going to make it, we were adrift, with no guarantee of catching our ferry back to Krabi. Mercifully though, we managed to hail down another boat, to tow us back to land, where the stoner’s mate offered to take us back to Maya Bay. After rigorously inspecting the boat, and judging his level of intoxication we deemed it worth the risk. As we rounded the headland, and got our first view of Maya Bay, all the travails instantly seemed worth it. Despite the hordes of tourist craft, Maya Bay took our breath away. If it was this stunning in 2013, how must it have looked when the, presumably awestruck, location scout had first laid eyes on it?

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After we disembarked, we only had an hour and a half to enjoy the island. Fortunately this was enough. After the obligatory face down on the sand photo, we quickly hiked up to a viewpoint where I ran into a friend of my brother. As one always does on islands in the middle of the Andaman Sea. The rest of the time was spent swimming in the impossibly blue water, thankful that we had finally made it to a place that I’d wanted to visit for years.

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Like many such places, Maya Bay is a victim of it’s own success. It is crowded 365 days a year, mostly it seems by Russians taking glamorous / borderline erotic selfies. Furthermore, sadly a lot of the coral around the island has died out. It’s also true to say that there are more beautiful beaches in Thailand (Rai Leh Beach in Krabi is far superior) but if you’re a fan of the book or film, it is definitely worth putting the effort, and indeed a lot of it in our case, in to visit. You won’t regret it.

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TRAVEL TIPS

The restaurant where I got food poisoning, is called Ton Sai seafood. Avoid it like the plague.

Categories: Asia, Maya Bay, Thailand | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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