Where?! The PHILIPPINES, of course! There is certainly a lot of truth to their nickname, the “Land of the Everlasting Smile.” Allow me to share with you my experience there, including my itinerary, impressions, and photos.
Glenn and I had booked this vacation back in February, when we were made to work the week of Seollal (the Chinese New Year, also celebrated in Korea) while the rest of our colleagues had the week off, except for 3 others who were in the same program as us. We were so burnt out from not having a vacation that we were thinking way ahead to our next break (September) during the Korean holiday of Chuseok (a similar concept to the North American Thanksgiving, but really not the same. Google it.), and the 5 of us decided we would go to the Philippines together. So, we booked our tickets only to have our one colleague go home in July. With the 4 of us remaining, another one ditched us at the last minute to spend the holiday with his girlfriend in another part of the Philippines. He flew with us to Manila and then we parted ways as he went one way and we, the remaining 3, went another way. (Because our friend, Tina, went home in July and had to give up her vacation, we printed out her picture and brought it along with us. You’ll see it in the pictures.)
We flew out of Incheon (Seoul) at 9:30pm on Friday, September 13th. It was 4 hours to Manila, the capital of the Philippines, where we set our clocks forward an hour (they’re an hour ahead of Korea) and waited 5 hours for our next flight to Caticlan.
We arrived in Caticlan, a dinky one-hallway airport, around 6:00am Saturday morning. From the airport in Caticlan, we took a ferry to the tiny island of Boracay. It wasn’t crowded at all and we were just a handful of people on the ferry.
It’s the tail end of the rainy season there, and thus the “low season,” as opposed to the peak season in December-February. However, the rainy season is very different in the Philippines than it is in Korea. If you remember, in one of my previous posts, I described the 2-week torrential downpour with no sunshine and no break from the rain that we experienced here in Paju. The rainy season in Boracay means sporadic sessions of rain throughout the day, with the majority of the rainfall happening at night. When we arrived in Caticlan and ferried over to Boracay, about a 10-minute ride, it was cloudy but didn’t rain one bit; the rain came later.
We took a motorcycle taxi (the main mode of transportation on the island) to our friend’s hotel, but it was too early to check in, and we decided to hang out at a restaurant that had just opened and get some breakfast. We were all feeling rough at this point, as we hadn’t gotten much sleep (or food) at all throughout the night, but I was especially feeling out of it due to the 2 tablets of Dramamine I had to take before flying (I get airsick otherwise), AND I was dealing with another throat infection that started the week leading up to vacation. I was relieved when 12:00pm came and we were able to bid our friend farewell and go off to find our hotel, on a different part of the beach. (You will notice in the map above that Boracay’s main beaches are divided into stations. Our friend stayed between stations 2 and 3, and our hotel was right in the center of station 2.)
We checked into our hotel and spent the rest of the day exploring the beaches and shops, and taking note of which restaurants looked good to come back to later. It rained off and on, but it wasn’t heavy and people were still out and about – especially the Filipinos. (I suppose if you’re raised in said climate, you learn to ignore the rain.) The island wasn’t too overcrowded with people, considering it wasn’t the peak season, but I was still surprised to see how many people were there. It was mostly Asians (Koreans and Chinese), with a few Russians thrown into the mix, as well as Filipinos from other parts of the country there on vacation. Of course, there were also the locals, who either worked in a hotel, store, or restaurant, or worked as a “street vendor,” selling various items to people along the beach (sunglasses, waterproof bags, jewelry, etc…as well as trying to sell us various tours and activity packages).
When the sky wasn’t cloudy, the sunlight touched every corner of the island and brought out the pearly white of the sand and the incredibly turquoise water. Palm trees lined the shore and as you walk from the beach, past the commercial part, and towards the inner part of the island, it’s like walking through a palm tree jungle! The majority of the restaurants were semi-outdoors, with a roof and a wall or two, but usually the front wall was missing and instead had what looked like sliding walls made of windows (or makeshift ones using bamboo and clear, plastic sheets) to put up when it rained. These were quite handy as the rain would start and stop at the drop of a hat.
Glenn and I spent Saturday, Sunday, and Monday just exploring and relaxing in the coffee shops and on the beach. We went swimming only when it was sunny, which actually wasn’t too often. It didn’t matter because we were so busy people-watching and exploring the various commercial venues. Tuesday, we finally gave in to the persistent beach vendors and scheduled an island-hopping tour for the afternoon. We imagined we would be sailing from one island to the next, hence island-“hopping,” but learned later on that it meant hopping from one point of Boracay Island to another. The boats used for these tours look like really big canoes with balancing skis attached to each side of the boat. One guy would stand on one end of the boat, and another guy on the other end, and with long bamboo poles they guided us from the shallow waters out into the Visayan Sea. Once in deeper water, they turned on a motor that sped us around the coast over to Puka Beach, where Glenn and I swam for a few minutes and checked out the few shops they had there. It’s a private beach owned by a resort, so there wasn’t much else to see there. I spent most of the time picking out seashells that I wanted to keep as (free) souvenirs.
After Puka Beach, the next stop was out in the sea. The boat guys anchored us in a seemingly random spot, and it turned out to be a prime snorkeling area. I, who am freaked out by fish and can barely look at them from behind glass, stayed on the boat while Glenn swam around and utilized the snorkeling gear like a pro. He would float around with his face in the water, then suddenly disappear as he dove into the water and reappeared several feet away, blowing the water out of the spout like a whale. I was enjoying watching him swim around, particularly when he spooked a couple of Koreans, who were snorkeling nearby. (By the way, “snorkeling” for a Korean means going out in a boat in a large group, jumping into the water wearing a life jacket and snorkeling gear, floating in the same spot while periodically sticking one’s head into the water for a couple of seconds, and spending most of the time taking self-photos using one’s Smartphone. Koreans don’t swim, but as a symbol of social status, they buy scuba gear and walk around the island wearing it to show off to others.) It was very entertaining to watch the Koreans float around while their Filipino guide herded them like an aquatic border collie, with Glenn swimming circles around them, and diving under and popping up between them to get some air.
We learned a lot about Koreans on this trip.
Glenn really enjoyed the snorkeling. He got to snorkel twice, in two different spots, on the island-hopping tour. Wednesday, we went sailing on a type of boat called “paraw.” It looks like a small sailboat with a balancing ski attached to each side (see pictures). As I had never been on a boat in water with currents, I soon discovered that airsickness isn’t the only type of sickness I get.
Paraw-sailing was fun at first. We sat on the sides that stretched out from the sails in the middle, and were quite low to the water so that we got splashed with every big wave. The boat guys took us out to another spot where Glenn was able to do some more snorkeling. At that point, I was feeling very nauseous and ended up vomiting a couple of times during the rest of the boat ride. How I managed to endure that 2-hour trip is beyond my comprehension. Glenn kindly sat with me on the beach for about 20 minutes once we got back to shore. I didn’t feel well for the rest of the day. Unfortunately, it got worse the next day.
I’ve been bungee-jumping and been on all sorts of crazy roller-coasters and rides. One thing that I’d always wanted to try and hadn’t had the opportunity to was para-sailing. I was enthusiastic about doing it even though I wasn’t too keen to get back on a boat after the paraw-sailing, but I figured the boat ride would be quick and we’d spend the rest of the time up in the air. That was a horrible judgement call on my part, but in retrospect, I was so excited to try it that I wouldn’t even have cared.
To go para-sailing, we were brought by speedboat out to a boat station, sort of a little man-made island where the para-sailing company operated from. We were transferred to a different boat and, once away from the boat station, Glenn and I were attached to the sail and the wind quickly swept us up into the air. The wind proved to be my demise as I puked for almost 5 minutes straight as Glenn frantically waved to get their attention in order to bring us back down. I was quickly brought back to the boat station and Glenn went back out for almost half an hour. I was given medicine, but had two more vomiting sessions on the boat station before I’d had enough and jumped into the water to swim and avoid too much of the motion from the waves.
We took the speedboat back to the beach and then hopped in a motorcycle taxi to take us back to the hotel, in which I had my final vomiting session of the day (luckily, there were no windows and I was able to stick my head out over the street as I retched). Needless to say, I felt horrible for the rest of the day and I gave Glenn a hall pass to attend a pub crawl without me that evening.
The rest of our time in Boracay was fantastic, as I had learned my lesson and avoided water sports like the plague from that point on. On Friday, we took an ATV tour up to Luho Point, the highest point on the island. It was tons more enjoyable for me and the view of the island from the top was incredible. It was fun to see, from the top, just how tiny the island is; it’s so small, in fact, that we could walk from station 2, on the one side of the island, to the next, in under 10 minutes. It was interesting to be on top of a mountain and to be able to see the entire island that you’re on!
On a previous day, Glenn and I had walked through the local town during our exploring of the island. Once you pass through the commercialized zone where all the tourists stay along the beach, it’s like a completely different world; you would think it was an entirely different country. Have you ever seen an ad or commercial showing poor people living in shacks with tin roofs in the middle of a jungle? That’s exactly what it looked like, and I felt embarrassed to be walking through there as a “wealthy” tourist. It reminded me so much of the vast poverty we saw in India, but everyone we saw seemed so incredibly happy. Everywhere we went, people smiled and were in good spirits, despite their blatant poverty. It really is the Land of the Everlasting Smile.
Leaving Boracay was bittersweet for us. I was ready to move on, as the low-key resort-type vacation isn’t exactly my thing, but I had certainly grown attached to the amazing people who worked at our hotel and knew us by name. For Glenn, he was heartbroken about leaving the place because he enjoyed indulging in the massages, cheap drinks, and laid-back lifestyle associated with the island paradise. However, once we landed at our next destination, Cebu, we were both excited for our next adventure.
We left Boracay at 7:30am and ferried back to Caticlan. Our flight to Cebu was at 9:30am and took only an hour. As soon as we got through the gate, we had a local sell us on a tour around Cebu City for the day. Since it was early and had time to spare before checking into our hotel, we decided to go for it. Our driver first took us to some sites on Mactan Island, which is connected to Cebu by bridge and is actually where the Cebu airport is located. On that very island is where Ferdinand Magellan, the first explorer to circumnavigate the globe, was killed by local chief, Lapu-Lapu, and is thus a Philippine national hero. There were a monument and paintings commemorating the event, and our non-optional guide made us pose for a picture right in front of the spot where Lapu-Lapu is said to have killed Magellan. Very romantic.
We left Mactan Island and crossed the bridge into Mandaue City, where we stopped for lunch and then briefly at an outrageously expensive gift shop. Our last stop was a Chinese Tao temple. Glenn and I decided at that point to cut our excursion short and asked the driver to take us to our hotel since I was having a hard time staying awake (I had taken Dramamine for the flight). We were able to check in at the hotel and I slept for an hour or two before I was awoken by some very noisy neighbors. Apparently, due to the typhoon that was slamming Manila at the time, a flight full of Filipino high-schoolers had been diverted to Cebu City and were forced to stay the night since they couldn’t go to Manila. In addition, there was a youth mission trip from Australia staying at our hotel. They weren’t bad kids, but they were incredibly noisy and kept knocking on our door and calling our phone. We figured it would stop at night, but when it was midnight and none of the shenanigans had stopped, we packed up our bags and went down to ask the hotel for a refund so that we could go elsewhere. Whether the owners/managers (a married couple) were trying to keep our business, or were just really nice, they gave us their suite on a different floor, away from all of the other rooms. We slept wonderfully for the remainder of our stay.
We spent our second day in Cebu City walking around and visiting other historical sites, such as the oldest fort in the Philippines (San Pedro), Magellan’s cross that he planted in the ground there in 1521, a Chinese ancestral house, and several monuments scattered around the downtown. It was very hot and dry there, and downtown Cebu City is very dirty and polluted (when I wiped my brow or forehead, my hand turned gray; the pollution clung to our sweat) and I started feeling really sick. We found a clinic, but when the doctor tried to heal me with a pseudo-prayer/-exorcism, Glenn and I sprinted out of there the first chance we got. We ran far, far away and never went back to that street. We also decided against trying any other clinics/hospitals there.
I’m a little embarrassed to admit that we spent all of Tuesday in a mall, but the Philippines is famous for their malls (the largest mall in the world is in Manila) and we decided that it was an experience we had to have since we were there, and since I wasn’t feeling up to doing any sight-seeing. It was indeed an adventure. The mall, called Ayala Center, had 5 floors, indoor and outdoor hallways and areas, and had so many American stores that I felt I was back home. It was truly refreshing to see signs entirely in English (and not broken English and/or Konglish) and to have people speak fluent English with us. That’s something you won’t find anywhere in Korea. It was a nice break from Korea for us.
We hit an internet cafe and I emailed my parents, we had some snacks here and there, and walked around a lot. Our night ended at the bookstore, but we were highly disappointed to discover that they wrap the books in plastic so that you can’t leaf through them. This is also the norm in Korea, and we had gotten our hopes up that things would be different in the Philippines. That was the only disappointment; the rest of our Philippine mall experience certainly lived up to its reputation.
Wednesday, we took a bus down to a town called Oslob, on the southeastern side of Cebu Island. It took 3.5 hours to get there just to discover that it was literally a resort, a restaurant, and a few homes. This little town has grown to fame within the past year or so ever since they started feeding the whale sharks so that people can swim with them. I suspect that as this attraction gains more and more fame, the town will become more developed and commercialized – just like what happened in Boracay (the locals in Boracay weep for what it used to be, before all the development and commercialization). Glenn had a really cool experience snorkeling with the whale sharks (the “gentle giants” of the sea) and then we ate at their restaurant before getting back on the bus to Cebu City (which took 4.5 hours this time due to rush hour). It was mostly a day of traveling, but worth it in the end because Glenn can now brag that he swam with whale sharks… and I can say that I got to see the Philippine countryside. The entire ride down and back followed the coast and I really enjoyed the view of the sea on one side, and the jungle on the other, with smatterings of small cities and towns along the way. That’s what I really like to see when I travel: what the country actually looks like.
Our last day in the Philippines, Thursday, was a little uneventful for me but Glenn joined a submarine tour at one of the resorts on Mactan Island. We had seen it advertised at Fort San Pedro and he’d been looking forward to it since then. (I didn’t want to take my chances on getting sick on the submarine after all the seasickness I experienced in Boracay.) The submarine took them down along the side of the island, which was cool for Glenn, and he saw a lot of fish (obviously) but not much else. Now he can brag about having been underwater on a submarine.
After the submarine tour, we went to the airport and waited for our flight to Manila, at 7:30pm. Luckily, the typhoon had gone and we had no trouble landing in or leaving Manila. Our flight back to Incheon (Seoul) was at midnight and we got in around 5:00am Friday morning. By the time we got back to Paju, it was 8:00am and we ran into a few of our colleagues who were on their way to work. We were relieved that we had all of Friday, plus the weekend, to recover from our awesome trip.
If you’ve made it to the end of this post, then first of all, GOOD WORK! It was indeed a lot to read. Secondly, now is the fun part: take a look at my pictures. Just click the link below!
Salamat! (“Thank you” in Tagalog)