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.
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.
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.