Most of the Philippines’ provinces slowly bowed down and surrendered to the Spanish, all but Mactan Island, led by Chief Lapu-Lapu, adjacent to Cebu Island. This is where we are to take our boat to Bohol. He led his people to fight against the invasion, killing Ferdinand Magellan in a battle, no less, and slowing the Spanish colonisation by many years. There is a statue to the famous chief, perhaps The Phillippines first real hero, the first native to resist the Spanish colonisation. Indeed as we head out of the harbour on the way to some smaller islands of the Filipino archipelago I am looking forward to seeing how and if any of these beautiful islands have staved off the western influence, after the malls and metropolis of Manila and Cebu. Will we find something that feels more Filipino?
At the Alana Beach resort on Bohol Island this is not what I found. A kind of Benidorm for Indonesians, that’s not to say we don’t enjoy our week here, just that it’s not what we expected, in fact we end up trying to embrace the holidaying feel.
On a trip like ours where we are away for months and months, although it might sound silly, you sometimes don’t get much of an actual typical holiday. I mean that we are in such amazing places with so much to do and see, and be, and try, that there is little holiday relaxing in the conventional pool-cocktail-beach-restaurant-sunbathing type sense. We have said to ourselves that Alana Beach will give us that.
Panglao Island, the south eastern peninsula of Bohol is a kind of famous haven for scuba diving and a world renowned spot for whaleshark sighting, so this part of Bohol certainly has credentials, but on arrival we are more struck by the three language menus, the happy hour bars, hotel shuttle buses, tour operators, and overweight middle aged western men with young nubile supine Filipino women.
We try and embrace the resort holiday feel. Our first afternoon we relax on Alana beach, which is dead lovely. Sunny, shiny and sweaty. I am intrigued by a man who seemingly from nowhere staggers out of the sea with two bowing buckets hung with a bit of wood over his shoulders, and dumps them heavily on the sand. He proceeds to take out small sea shell sized type molluscs, crack them open, then with a small spoon meticulously and methodically clean them out until they seem all but empty, swishing them with sea water, then scrape them again; until finally he has a tiny morsel of orange flesh in the bottom. He dresses this with lemon and garlic from an old Coke’ bottle and people swiggy-chew it down like an oyster. Pure theatre. Fascinating. I am in for a penny. It’s sea urchins he tells, cost me about 10p and later I learn they are quite the delicacy in Europe and cost a lot more in Sushi bars and restaurants. I top if off with a strange desert in a plastic cup with tapioca, soy milk, and sugar.
One good thing about the beach side tourist bars is the abudnace of happy hour drinks so we dutifully indulge, me trying the seemingly endless variations of San Miguel and the lovely lady waitress helping me collect the lids for my collection. Nice cheap noodle tea and an early night with telly – we’re watching ‘Staircase’ on Netflix. In fact this is what most of evenings here look like and we kind of enjoy it, taking it easy and trying to not take ourselves too seriously, trying not to be snobby ‘travellers’ and accept being holiday-ers.
We even get up early and do some HIT sessions, a coffee by the pool, Duolingo language learning, really taking it easy, so what if it’s abit touristy? But then certain things just remind you that not all development is good, and ‘Big Daves’ café for example leaves us feeling slightly sicky from the greasy food and even slimier proprietor. Complete with ‘little’ local wife.
Next few days follow this plan
Coffee at ‘Estrella’
Beer at ‘lost horizon’
Food and TV
As always with these popular places in the main it’s great, they are popular for a reason. We particularly enjoy the range of cuisine (Italian, Thai, Indonesian) and vegetarian offers that global tourism brings. And the craft beer bars and wine lists. All the places we go listed above are ace and the local people kind and welcoming and fun.
Bohol though does have more to offer and we duly seek it out, hiring a motorbike and skidding off around the island on several days out. Zipping along the coast roads we kick up dust through small fishing villages. Stopping occasionally to fill up the tank from roadside stalls whose little ladies pour the petrol in from old pop bottles and take a small handful of Philippine Pesos and wave us off. Coming through busy crossroads in small hamlets, at bell time where school children dash out of the dates and line the road on their way home, waving at us. Flying through what seems miles of lush green fields with buffalo in looking up, chewing and next to solitary farmers lifting and shifting and sleeping and standing hands on hips, raising a straw hat at us on our way. Past dusty shelters leaned up made of piled up corrugated sheets with mechanics with their feet up and people smoking and talking. A market with women sat swishing plastic bags on bamboo canes as fly deterrents and almost rainbow like shining fruit stalls.
Just up the coast is Bohol Bee Farm, a cool community run enterprise that features, naturally a farm of bee hives, but also a community garden, a café/shop and restaurant, and even hotel rooms. The emphasis though is on organic cultivation and educating local farmers. The tour round is great run by clearly passionate individuals, taking in the herb gardens, vegetable patches and of course the humming hives. It’s good to see this organisation making a good balance of pulling in visiting punters like us, but developing and nuruturing local people like our guide and bee-keeper Dakila. He says there are lots more branches of BBF across Bohol and Cebu and it’s popularity down to its no-pesticide policy. Makes the food taste so good he says. And he’s bloody right.
Dreamy stir fry veg and spicy coconut aubergine (almost everything has been grown here and includes a touch of honey wherever possible); and to finish, the best ice cream Helen has ever had – I quote. The restaurant looks out over the staggeringly beautiful sea down the steep craggy rocks. There’s some stairs we inch down the coast line where there is boardwalk and a moments reflection. It’s close to perfection. Over to the right, in the distance, we see the peninsula of Panglao, and Alana beach, andf bright lights twinkling and the hotels on the front looming – perfection which has become popular.
We decide to get back before the rain comes as it has been around sun down time, but want to explore any other beaches along the coast and so stumble serendipitously on a sunset and thunder storm on the beach moment.
This is probably the beautiful sunset sky I have ever seen, and we’ve seen a few on this trip. The sky is pink and purple and violent thunder booms as fishing boats bob on the water. It’s so quiet and we shrink into the sand feeling quite happily insignificant here.
As we walk further along there are groups of men gathered and drinking, we are offered lots of rum with the lads, we’re the only non-natives here, strange only a few miles in between the packed resort of Alana and the busy visitor spot of the bee farm, no one comes down here onto Amerela beach, just the people who live here.
We still have the motorbike the next day and embark on a 2 hour drive up to the famous ‘Chocolate hills’ and take in a Tarsier sanctuary on the loop back. The guide book tells us to go to a specific Tarsier park of the two on offer, one which is truly a sanctuary apparently, as opposed to a zoo.
The chocolate hills are worth the ride, albeit arriving with 10s of coach trips winding up the hill to the viewing platform. Gazing out, these hills are naturally formed lumps of limestone across the landscape covered in green grass and creating an undulating spectacle across the vista. In the dry season the grass turns brown hence the name and they stretch off into the distance, apparently numbering over 1000 hills across 20sq miles. The story is that they are formed from the tears of a lovesick giant – I like that idea.
Tarsiers are a kind of mini monkey with wide baby like eyes and they are seriously cute. They are the smallest primate in the world and like many of this Earths special creatures; it has seen dwindling numbers due to loss of habitat, and a well meaning conservation programme put in place in response. That the sanctuary can bridge the balance between bringing in tourist pesos which undoubtedly keep the Tarsiers going, and giving the Tarsiers a natural nocturnal life is perhaps debatable. But the guides who show us round seem caring and conscientious and we whisper-walk around seeking out the sleeping beauties. A couple of furtive photos and we are enchanted by them. Perhaps inevitable a couple of them wake up and look at us and we are mesmerised by their deep shiny eyes. So wonderful and we feel very lucky to have seen them, our ticket price hopefully going some way to help their fight for survival.
On cue as we rev back home we are caught in the rain. The kind of rain you only get in the summer in Asia. Man, I have never seen anything like it in my life. Silver spears of rain pounding the pavements, thrapping on my chest and helmet. Bouncing of concrete like silver fish flapping in a net above the sea. Pop up rivers down the roadside washing everything along, bicycles unstabilised washing away before our eyes. Clothes sodden eyes crying tight we pull over and dive into a make shift mechanics shed with some local lads.
Drying off we get ready for our final night here and a Firefly watching excursion at inland, Loboc. We had drive through here earlier on the bike but with a couple of beers in the minibus this was much more like it.
We board a boat in the dark of night and follow the single spot light. The man scans the trees slowly and chug dreamily along.
Suddenly; under a full moon and as the light glides across the waves the boats have made – while clear sky means the stars pin prick bright in the night – spindly tree branches sway gently and hold a whole dusting of white pulsating fireflies.
There is magical moment of quiet where the little lights pulse on and off in a kind of rhyme together. Breathing bright in time. A few wavy lines here a cluster of twinkles there. Palm trees silhouetted against the evening as we lay looking up, dreaming.
The final phase of our Filipino frolic will take us to Siargao Island, surfers heaven and apparently unspoilt idyllic traveller haven. ‘Like Bali 20 years ago’ they say. It’s home to one of the worlds premier surf spots, ‘Cloud 9’ so called because of the shape of its dreamy curly curved barrels, and of course that it feels like paradise. The pictures look amazing.