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Journey to SE Asia: Pt2 - Palawan

Updated: Apr 4, 2018

Part two of my journey around the world begins with a heavy dosage of travel.

April 03, 2014

of the last sixty hours, fifty of those hours had been spent traveling. So, sleep was a priority to recuperate and make the most of my time on the expedition.

At midnight I walked through the LAX gateway, preparing to fly for 15 hours to Hong Kong. I planned to stay up for the first six hours and then sleep the final eight as an attempt to put myself into Hong Kong time. The flight was very accommodating with lots of room to stretch out, personal TVs for entertainment plus dinner and breakfast along with snacks served periodically. I had the developed unfortunate habit of knocking drinks over at each interval, so I arrived with one pant leg coated in coffee and the other orange juice. As the plane was flying low into the hazy early hours, I saw the faint appearance of Hong Kong's rolling mountainside. I certainly got the sense that I had flown around the world to a very new, and very different setting.

I went right through immigration and again through departing immigration for the flight out to Manila. The flight here was short and fun, with the attendants playing trivia games with the passengers. Once in Manila, the luxury of an orderly airport was completely erased. I was in a sweltering urban jungle now and the lag of flying and diet of harshly prepared airplane food was taking its toll. I went into the airport's 'comfort room' to expel things from all ends before figuring out what bus might take me to what any number of people were saying was the right location for the next flight terminal. It was a private airline so many hadn't heard of it, yet they still gave directions whether they knew it or not. After spending an hour on an overfilled bus to travel 3km, the passengers were all dropped off, but the driver waved for me to stay. We went another 500m up the road and a gateway showed the airline company I was looking for. It was like an oasis in the jungle. They were many persons there being overly helpful and ushered me into their wooden lounge room for snacks and refreshments while I waited for the departure.

I was bussed across the flight grounds to a fairly good sized island hopper with about a 75 seat capacity. The flight was extraordinarily beautiful as we crossed the endless expanse of undeveloped nature. The plane began to bank as we circled one of the iconic mountainsides and we were descending into what appeared to be yet another undeveloped valley. But low and behold, before I could even panic, we were touching down onto a dirt road landing strip. Safely arriving at the El Nido airport, there were three women playing the guitar and singing as I stepped off the jumper.

I stuffed my belongings onto a motorcycle with a loosely welded side carriage called a trike and sat beside the driver. He was a cool, flashy young driver. We had to wait for the plane I came in on to depart again as the street into town was part of the runway.

Along the way I passed shacks that were built over plots of farming land. Animals were out in the streets and at one point while going up a hill the driver asked me to sit on the front portion of the carriage so we didn't tip backwards. Checking in at the pension, I was greeted with birthday balloons, flower petals and the most scenic view of a beach community situated in a little cut out of towering, encircling mountains.

The strip was small enough to see from one end of town to the other. I walked down to a cafe for dinner, but was too tired and sick to eat. I walked a bit exploring the streets which were lines of connecting shacks that had everything from massage parlors, souvenir shops, grocery/snack items and tour centers for island exploring.

The next night I dissembled my gear bag and prepped them for being on a banka (water ferry) for the next five days. In the morning I went to the towns port and started seeing the faces of the group whom I'd be traveling with. I'd missed the briefing the night before, so Romy, our expedition leader gave me a very basic run down of the things I'd read on the internet for the trip. Basically sunscreen, water bottle, insect repellent and dry bag. The rest would be taken care of.

Next, I walked my bag down to the edge of the harbor where a bright white with vivid, royal blue accented boat was docked bow facing in. There was a step bridge bouncing up and down daring us to board, and I got my first look at the boats crew.

After a quick assembly line to load everyones gear, the group sat along the two opposing benches and waited for the coast guard to finish their inspection of the vessel. Soon enough we were off and moving.

We traveled a quick twenty minutes to our first beach stop and had breakfast. It was the site of the original Tao base camp, the expedition I was traveling with. I had eggs, fresh fruit and a vegetable curry. It seemed I was going to be well taken care of on this trip. After exploring the beach and getting a sense of what the camps would be like, I was back on the boat and traveling to the next spot, Cadlao Island for lunch. We had tempura shrimp and sautéed prawns which I was tempted to try but couldn't due to shrimp/shellfish allergies and these suckers were huge!

We pulled up anchor and headed a ways up to Nakpan Beach, the longest beach in El Nido. It was 2 or 3 km long and there were also a couple resort cottages located along its shores. Of the trip, this was the most pristine beach and I couldn't resist going to the bar and spending some of my newly acquired pesos on a delicious mango shake. I walked along the beach for a ways and stopped to exchange smiles with an old man from the village asking me for a cigarette.

The island hopping continued, but this time it was to our last stop of the day: The Calibang fishing village, which was to be the site of our night's base camp. Tao either pays the villagers rent to build their base camps adjacent to them or they bought the property outright. I packed what I needed for the night into a transferrable dry bag and swam myself to shore.

Around this island was a very shallow fishing boat from WW2 era and corals encircling the beach. It was nearing dusk, but I couldn't resist getting my first look at the Filipino marine life. The wreck was very much intact and about 10m long. Along the corals surrounding it, I spotted my first family of clown fish aggressively defending their sea anemone home. 

I trekked up the beach to the camp which was three smaller personal huts and a large two story hut with a wide open pavilion hut between.

There was a concrete slab at the back of the camp with a drum of fresh water for bucket showering in the open and two huts for bucket toilets. Some camps had generators, but none had power or running water, with exception to one that had a spring flowing down to it.

I showered by rinsing myself off with a scoop of water then lathering up before rinsing off a final time. I got into my camp clothes which was recommended to be long sleeves and pants for mosquitos, but honestly I never had much issue with them.

I set up my mat in the top story of the big hut and the crew helped us all tie the bug netting. Apparently there is an applied art to this and we did try each night, but ultimately they would give it their final touches. The group reconvened at the pavilion for Sun Downers and a clink of glasses saying, Tagay! Which was a form of cheers in their language. Sun Downer was equal parts of rum from the city and canned pineapple juice. It did quite well for putting our heads down.

The group chatted and I snuck off to walk the moonlight beach and see the stars in their fullness. The longer you stared, the further out into space you could see. It was picturesque with the silhouette of palm trees against the starry sky and soft illuminated white sands beneath the feet. The boat was mooring and I could hear the final clanks of dinner being prepared and then brought to shore by kayak.

We had fresh caught and grilled red snapper, grouper and Filipino power, aka sticky rice. Also Fresh turnips in a salad. Honestly, the food was abundant and I'm struggling to recall all that was served. But one thing was for sure, it was hands down the best cooking I've ever encountered. Each day a new and insanely delicious meal that had us all cleaning our plates.

I feel at this point in the story I should mention out that of the last sixty hours, fifty of those hours had been spent traveling. So, sleep was a priority to recuperate and make the most of my time on the expedition.

Sleep was better than expected and biological clocks had me up early. I walked along the beach at Sunrise passing the neighboring fishing village as they too were beginning to stir about, prepping the little bankas for their journeys out to collect fish.

I inspected all the sea shells and made my way down to the furthest point where the sun was rising over the wind swept waters. A big breeze had been developing and we were in for some rough crossing. On our way back I stopped to climb a beautiful fallen tree and started to notice the first sight of the birds here. There was an Oncologist in our group and he mentioned that its eerie how few birds there were and that it was due to Typhoon Yolanda two years back that sent them away. Still, I was pleased to see a squat finch-like hummingbird buzzing about and above some little triangle shaped gliders with light blue beaks and sea-blue heads.

Passing the village for the second time, now a little later, the locals were hard at work. I stopped to look at two women laying out little fish on stilted nets to dry. I asked Romy about this later and he explained that before ice all the fish had to be done this way to preserve it. They soaked over night the fish in salt water, then recoated in salt to dry. There are a few ice factories on some of the islands now, but still, many villages still do their fish this way.

When I got back to camp the crew was milling about and I said hello and helped myself to some fresh coffee. They were a little surprised to see me up and about so early but it would become the custom. We chatted a bit and soon breakfast was making its way to shore. I was delighted to see veggie breakfast burgers which were a egg, banana heart, green pepper, carrot and garlic pressed into a patty and fried. The banana heart is the fruit that hangs in the middle of the clusters and had just a tint of banana taste to it. They sat down a mason jar of coconut wine. It had been made fresh that morning so not much fermentation at this point. It was collected from the flower of a coconut which is turned over and then allowed to drip slowly into a jar.

The days are planned very loosely with our schedule based around when everyone is packed and ready to go. Romy tells us good things to do while at camp, so we let everyone have the chance to see and explore the area. I was just the first one to wake up so I always got to do and see it all. This particular morning I wanted to explore the corals a little more. I swam around and by then most everyone had reconvened at the boat and we were back out on open water.

We cut across the water to the Tao Farms, which was a growing hub for Tao to train new members and begin to harvest their own food. He took us on a tour showing the cod and prawn farms and then back up to where small fields of rice were growing. We saw cashews drying and he explained how you had to be careful of the acid inside when shelling and needed to coat the hands in coconut oil. They of course produced their own coconut oil here.

He took us past ducks, chickens, pigs and a cow. There were lots of dogs here too, but they serve no real purpose. In the gardens they had okra, tomato, lots of papaya, green onion and aubergines. In villages, they would be paid by Tao to grow a pig to about 100 kilos before harvesting. Tao had just slaughtered one and I missed it.

We rested under the huge double decker pavilion and a lady brought down bags of cashews to buy for $150 pesos, almost $4 us dollars. They were in fact the tastiest, most-smokiest cashews on the planet too.

I watched as some of the young recruits were working on a new Tao hut design that was to be much more spacious and sturdy. They were constructed of large bent bamboo trunks for roof rafters, fishing line for lashings, whittled bamboo shoots for nails and palm fronds for roofing. These were what Tao considered to be a more long-term approach to their base camp housing.

From here, we had a very long open water crossing around the NW tip of El Nido and after two and a half hours of wind, chop and splashing geysers of salt water spray, we arrived at a coral garden for snorkeling. It was seated on the shores of a tiny island, but the corals were immense and uninterrupted. It was the first time I'd seen the floor bed completely covered. Lots of little reef fish using the spaces for protection, but nothing much bigger than a foot long for what was out in the open.

We had more sea to cover and travel was slow due to the pressing East winds. The banka was a long, 70 foot, narrow-hull boat made of all wood. On its sides were the traditional wood outriggers which gave the boat its stability. Above were tarps held up by a series of line that served for drying our clothes as well. The boats could only go bow or stern first into the waves and not more than a 45 degree angle or the riggers would snap. The boat was powered by two diesel engines, one larger and one much smaller one. The engines engaged by stepping on a clutch and popping a shifter into either a forward or reverse gear. Since the props were different sizes, they were staggered one over the other. So, it was not truly a twin engine in terms of steering. It used a push pull mechanism connected to a rudder and a steering wheel from a van was added. The captain, Ronaldt, had been with Tao for 5-6 months and was quite good at handling the long boat while at sea and docking, but still needed Romy at his side now and again for navigating the more treacherous passes. There was also a mechanic on board, Ugay, and he would jump down below and tap on things when it seemed the engine stalled due to the strain of crossing in these conditions.

From majestic to messy..

Our next base camp was on Linapacan island and we were in the middle of a sand storm. There were two open huts, a small pavilion, a four quadrant bigger hut and what appeared to be an emaciated and either dead or nearing death dog beneath. Behind the huts were piles of rubbish that were left to be burned and a shower bathroom combo hut. There were some thirteen families living in the nearby village, but it looked desolate. I walked around a bit, exploring and snapping photos of a spectacular sunset going behind one of the islands we had passed coming in.

As much as I wanted to call this roughing it, I just couldn't. I was being too well taken care of. Great hand-prepared food at every interval. Snacks, coffee and ginger tea available throughout the day. The crew brought our gear to shore and helped us with setting up camp. This would be, however, my roughest night complete with blasting sands into the sleeping areas, smacking rooftops and of course roaming roosters and chickens going off slightly before first light. And no matter the condition of sleep, I was right there to meet the daybreak every time. I walked down to the village and talked with an old man who asked me where I was from and knew of the locations.

For breakfast we were served an aubergine omelette with Filipino power, fresh fruit and cold cucumber and tomato salad with vinegar. We were back on the boat soon enough and headed for the littler Linapacan island for lunch.

As we were moving through the islands I noticed a collection of big fishing vessels. Except, these were the hard-steel, industrial Chinese ones that had moved into Filipino waters for safe haven from the prevailing winds. I took it as an omen that perhaps water was much more worse out in the open. Some were rigged with a series of large lamps along the sides of the boat. I'd started to see other local fishermen with these on their boats as well. Romy explained that they were used at night to draw up squid. A circle of boats was made, a net goes in between and then the lights go out as they pull in the catch. He said it was not a perfect science and many unintentional fish and porpoises were caught.

By dusk we arrived at base camp which was a large cut out in Culion island. In here there were mangroves and it was a spawning area for jellyfish. Or however jellyfish are made. I saw them in the water the whole way in. Some huge and flowery, others long and tentacley.

This particular village was home to only one family, but all the extensions of it were gathered here, so it felt very full. It was tucked away in the rolling hillsides, but was very developed in that rural bamboo construction way.

The second in command for the village was a man named Elmo, who was very calm but had many things to discuss with Romy about his plans for fixing up the place. As we were unloading most all the women were out with their straw brooms sweeping out the leaves from the grassy spots and over the dirt pathways. The islanders had no form of communication nor electricity. So we couldn't inform them we were coming. We settled on the grass by the shore and met the children who were all being hams.

The camp had one large multi-room hut that everyone chose to stay in but I decided to use the other hut up a ways that was more open. It was nice to have the privacy. There was also running water from the streams that was carried to the village by hoses. I took a nice long cold shower and then we all gathered for dinner. We had a big bonfire that night. This was the dry season here so even the grass was flammable and of course the fire began to ignite the surrounding foliage. A few of our crew went and pulled gallon size buckets of water, but it was too little and too slow. Elmo and our cook went calmly to the tree line, cut a palm frond off and as he came back simply whipped the fires edge and it was out and controlled in fifteen seconds.

The next morning we went on an excursion up the hills lead by a few of the village boys. It was very rocky and bamboo shoots were freshly cut along the path which could cause harsh cuts along the legs if not careful. The views were incredible. The water cutting into the islands and the lush hills continuing on in the distance.

After two hours of tough terrain we were back and ready to load the boat with our gear. I couldn't help but play a little two on two with three of the boys on their bumpy rock, dirt basketball court. It was fun and they were quite good. I hadn't met a vicious or unkind person yet. No matter if I was walking through a village or asking for directions on the street, it was always smiles and good-hearted kindness.

Our first stop for the day was at the fishing island of Alaba.  I ventured through the village meeting and taking pictures with the locals. The village was home to a live grouper trade that sold to Manila who in turn exported to China. Live fish was much harder to maintain and export so it sold quite well. Still, the village was a series of shacks. The kids were easy to take pictures of and loved seeing themselves, but the women were very abashed at not having teeth or being seen as old.

As the boat navigated its way between islands of Culion and towards Coron, we stopped and checked out some very cool diving and snorkel sites. I didn't have the gear to scuba, but the sites were all very shallow. One was a Japanese gunboat off the coast of Lusong in about 4-6m of water. I could tell we were in the island hopping routes as boats were coming and going to these locations with other travelers.

The winds had flattened out a bit, but the water here was in direct line of it and was still open water. The terrain changed and the mountain sides were now barren. We had a final lunch outside Melkapoca Beach and then it was in to the port of Coron to all go our separate ways.

As we were making our way along the coast to the seaport I could tell what a change Coron was to El Nido in sheer size and development. It was an actual sprawl many kilometers long and had many permanent structures and landmarks. A big cross up on Mount Tapya with white letters similar to the Hollywood sign spelling out Coron.

That night we all got back together for dinner at a restaurant near the Tao office. It was fun to see the crew and guests cleaned up still adjusting to land life.

The crew only spent two days at the city before turning around and doing another expedition back to El Nido. They had all enjoyed a few pitchers of sun downers and were feeling pretty relaxed. I sat and talked with them about life on the boat and how they felt about it. They enjoyed it, but admitted it was hard work. We laughed as I gave my impressions and jokes of each crew member, but afterwards I could tell their true home was at sea and on that banka.

I gave Romy a generous tip to split amongst themselves and shook hands saying my goodbyes. That night while showering in an actual shower with all the luxuries of a hotel room, I felt a certain sadness to be away from that life on the boat and around the camaraderie of those boys and Romy. The life was simple, but so effective in the sense of having exactly what was needed to survive. And it was far from bare means, I had everything I needed and could want in those moments. But truly, waking up in those camps surrounded by never-ending beauty, with fun and excitement around every island passage and greeted each day by the faces of warm and honest people, I could not think of a better way to spend my time traveling.

Coming up next: More fun and Adventure in Coron, Basuanga and Hong Kong!

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