Delightful Philippines – Around Coron (Palawan) 2/2
After three nights in Manila and a flight on a rambling 19 seater, remote Coron Town was our first provincial destination in the Philippines.
On a reddish hill over town, huge white "Coron" letters suggest you arrived at Hollywood-in-the-Phils. But friendly little Coron is no attraction in itself. It serves as a launch pad for boat or land excursions.
So we first wanted to take a central guesthouse next to market and harbor, like the US run SeaDive built right over the water. But the Lonely Planet guide book had warned that SeaDive was plagued by karaoke from one side and had no mosquito screens on the windows.
Instead of the central option, we decided on a place some blocks away from the action, also mentioned in the guide book. The Lonely Planet had not warned, though, that our own place, the one we chose instead of SeaDive, sits next to a gamecock farm. It’s a large grassy farm shaded by trees, and, Philippines-style, each single rooster proudly occupies its own generous A-frame hut, furiously crowing away.
Weeks earlier, in an extended e-mail-exchange, we had arranged the stay at our lodge and yes, when we arrive we get the room exactly to our wishes (high floor, away from the street). We may well have the only lodge in town run by Filipinos, not Westerners. The owner family is somewhat dignified and reserved. Years ago even president Gloria Acapulco Arroyo visited this modest lodge, when a fishing treaty was signed there. The newspaper reports still hang in the tiny bamboo lobby. "The house was so full of bureaucrats and security", the landlady sighs: "Me and even the grandchildren had to wear badges just to get into our own kitchen!"
Anyway, we would like to hear from helpful westerners how to explore the area. So we walk down to the US run SeaDive resort. Our own guest house offers boat trips only for the two of us, but we hope to find something cheaper with a group. The stroll through the small town is not unpleasant, with cheering kids in the side streets. Later we discover that we can always flag down a tricycle (tuktuk), which sometimes means joining other passengers. Within town, that's a fixed six pesos (17 US cents).
So on our first afternoon in town – and our first afternoon in provincial Philippines as well – we stroll down to SeaDive hotel and restaurant. We learn that there are no organized island hopping trips in all of Coron. We have to book a boatman on our own. But we can join them very economically on a diving trip that other customers had booked for the next day.
While I test a freshly squeezed mango juice at SeaDive, Nahlee inspects the nearby market. She comes back deeply disappointed. "They sell grilled fish", Nahlee reports, "but it's already packed in plastic bags". Nahlee also observed that "people here don't like vegetables". What little green stuff they had was, according to her, "at least a month old". Our permanent Philippines food crisis materializes there and then and lingers until many weeks later at Manila International's departure gate.
According to the Lonely Planet and many travel web sites, French run Bistro Coron serves Coron town's best food. The Bistro looks cosy, but opens onto the main road where noisy tricycles roar past every other second. So for our first dinner in town we visit SeaDive again, on a breezy platform right over the water.
The cabbage soup tastes like foul water. My whole crab consists of only shell, there's almost no meat inside.
"This crab staid in a water cage for a month, without any food", analyses my walky-talking foodipedia wife.
"There is no more meat left. No Thai person would accept such a crab in any restaurant. Never. Ever."
The Lonely Planet had warned that SeaDive gets karaoke noise from one side, but – development – wailing actually comes from both north and south. Nahlee looks for a sign to the toilet. Only after a while I conclude that the "CR" sign on one door means "comfort rooms", i.e. toilet. So even in a US run business catering to foreigners they use this Philippines word. Later we learn that most Filipinos just say "CR" when referring to the restrooms.
Next morning we set out with the SeaDive's banka boat for Coron island. With us are a diving tourist couple, SeaDive's diving instructor Helen, and two local boat men. We walk across another ridge to see impressive Barracuda Lake. Then back onto the boat for lunch. The fish has not been gilled, so it's a bloody mess on our plastic plates. After that we get a San Miguel beer.
The young Swiss divers, poking in their bloody fish-rice-veggies, rave about the wreck diving that's a big attraction around Coron. US planes have bombed a whole number of Japanese ships here at the end of WW II.
"One ship has a huge bomb crater", beams the guy.
"Yes", jubilees his girl friend, "and you dive right through there into the huge machine room".
They seem to talk about a PC game, a phantasy movie. Hundreds or thousands of people died there in a war, but for them it's cheerful holiday fun.
Now after one dinner and one boat trip with SeaDive we know we have to look for other boat trip offers and for other dinner locations. Fortunately, from the SeaDive pier we had spotted another restaurant on a pier. This turns out to be La Sirenetta. It's pricey, but they really care for delightful service and good food, with Mediterranean and north African dishes, freshly made pita bread (something not oily!) and their decidedly easy going signature drink, Frozen Margarita with fruit, for example with the lime-like dalandan or with guava. La Sirenetta's breezy dinner platform with bar over the water is hands down Coron's best place to kick back after a hot day of island hopping or motorcycle bouncing.
I only come back to SeaDive for its relatively reasonable internet service. I forget the USB stick there and when I return two days later, the friendly Filipina caretaker has kept it for me in the drawer.
In his tiny motorcycle rental shop, we visit talkative Mr Boyet. He has a useful hand drawn map of Busuanga island and we bow over it for half an hour. Nahlee can't believe how guys can talk so long over a map and walks off to the market. When she returns we are still discussing difficult gradients and road closures.
At 12 USD per day, the 125 ccm bike costs 100 percent more than in Thailand or Cambodia. Equally, the vehicle is also 100 percent more trashy than offers on the SE Asian mainland. The horn works bad, indicators and gear indicator don't work at all.
The fuel gauge doesn't wince either.
"Of course they break the fuel gauge as soon as possible", shrugs my ever market-savvy Nahlee. "Thus you stupid scared westerners buy too much gasoline which they fill into their private machines in the evening."
Only upon return we notice that Mr Boyet actually has much better motorcycles available. When we tell him this he beams and says proudly: "Yes, and you would get them for the same price."
There is another experience that would return on many later motorcycle rentals.
"Have you ever driven a motorcycle in the Philippines before", Mr Boyet asks?
So he knows we have no idea about driving around poor, potholed, unsealed roads full of water buffaloes, chicken, children, slow trucks and fast Enduros. No need to tell them you've been all over Thailand and Indochina, from northern Laos to southern Vietnam, on many a desperate road by motorcycle – they won't believe that you actually can handle one single road in the Phils.
Mr Boyet rolls his eyes and after all the map talk he now starts to explain the use of the motorcycle brakes under a variety of conditions (slippery/downhill/coconut tree ahead). Nahlee rolls her eyes and starts to wonder if we ever make it out of town.
Three miles out of Coron town the asphalt road changes to red dirt and gravel. There are a few bridges with a remarkable sign:
WARNING!! Weak bridge!! Please unload passengers.
That reminds me of southern Cambodia where one heavily travelled bridge had a similar sign.
We pass scenic lush green rice fields, impressive views points, coastal mangrove forests, sleepy idyllic rural villages. Kids, sometimes invisible, cheer us HELLOOOOO, and munching water buffaloes ply their lazy trade. The gravel road is usually void of any traffic, except for the odd oxcart without wheels (yes, the cart rests on poles grinding over the ground, not on wheels).
Now this sounds like pure pothole research country, perfect for the Asian hinterlands explorer, and it's definitely more green and scenic than Isaan or some parts of Cambodia or Laos.
Pure pothole research country? Or maybe not?
Compared to rural Thailand or southern Vietnam, the village people on Busuanga lack that friendly, energetic curiosity; they don't care to interview you, they don't invite for young coconut or iced water. So contacts aren't that easy. They are friendly, yes, and they'd smile when you smile first – but there's none of that powerful, self-confident friendliness that Thailand's Isaan people pour all over you.
And we do miss snack stalls serving as meeting places. The villages we pass on our two Busuanga motorcycle trips boast a few meagre auntie shops, usually a wood shack with a counter behind rusted chicken wire. But these establishments don't offer a bank to sit and they don't sell cold coke or hot soup. There is no chance to plant yourself, expose yourself and see who and what might happen to you.
Okay, sometimes there is. Around 2 p.m. we reach the breathtaking, miles long and completely undeveloped sand beach of Marcilla village. Looking for a shady place to stay, we pass three young guys drinking whatever from a white canister. They gesture us to join, but we decline politely. A little further on a fisherman invites us to jump into his rowing boat for an outing – but it's way too hot.
Finally we find shadow and sleep under mangrove trees, just meters from the water. This makes us free lunch for sand flies, nik-niks and other bugs I never encountered on the Southeast-Asian mainland. Only days later we develop painfully itchy wounds lasting for weeks. Because of their size, the locals call this wounds "pizzas". The internet has drastic pictures of what the Philippines' critters can do to you.
On the way back to Coron town I photograph some rice fields from all angles. I wade into the mud and get rice saplings and a young water buffalo up close. The pictures are also in the companion slide show to this article.
I nearly drown in the rice field mud, but drag myself out and squelch back to Nahlee who is working on a mango in the shadow. I explain my heroic artistic efforts to the Thai spouse and that it's nice to have some scenic shots of the world's most important staple food, these essential, archaic rice fields, especially so given the current rice price hike, and that Getty and Corbis would soon be all over me. One by one, I show her the pics on the LCD, proudly zoom in, awaiting her admiring comment.
My Asian wife shrugs.
"That's useless grass you snapped."
You really have been to a lot of places off the beaten track!