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Philippines

Vigan, Philippines

A taste of Spain

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We knew we needed to be back in Manila on the 12th January because we had a flight booked on the 13th to our next destination. We could either stay another night in Sagada and risk the bus back to Manila being fully booked or we could have a very long journey to Vigan and see a different side of the Philippines...we went for the latter.

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It took 11 hours and 4 buses (Sagada-Bontoc-Servantes-Somewhere else-Vigan) to get there. There's no set timetable for the buses and they just leave when they're full, we seemed to be waiting for ages for our bus to leave Servantes...we managed to watch quite a few episodes of the Dexter series while we waited. Overall the journey wasn't too bad, we've definitely had worse.

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We'd not booked any accommodation in advance but luckily the tourist information office were very good and found us a lovely room in a Spanish Colonial House (I can't remember the name). First impressions, it was difficult to believe we were still in the Philippines; cobbled streets, horse drawn carriages, European architecture. I imagine this is what Intramuros in Manila must have looked like before it got bombed in WW2, luckily for Vigan it escaped unharmed by the war and is a well preserved Spanish colonial town.

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You only need a day here to see the main tourist attractions and get a feel for the place. There appeared to be a lot of Filipino tourists, all making the most of the sunny weather and outdoor dining on the cobbled streets. It really did feel like being in an old Spanish town in Andalucia, we even found a little place serving pork espanadas. Although I'm afraid to say we went for an Italian feel to our outdoor dining experience in the evening and found a lovely place that did wood fired pizzas; we enjoyed eating our pizza and watching horses trot past in the piazza.

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The Filipino tourists took quite a shine to me and Jason when visiting the bell tower. Jason went up to the top of the bell tower and while I was waiting for him I got accosted by a group of Filipinos who wanted a souvenir photograph of me... I lost track how many I posed for, they all wanted a piccy. Then when Jason came back down from the top of the tower we had to do a whole load more photographs of the two of us... I felt like a celebrity.

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We visited a museum of Crisologo, a local governor, set up in his old home with remnants of his assassination.

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We went to the local cathedral and park.

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Then spent the late afternoon reading in the park. This is when all of the locals come out and socialise away from the sun's heat; the parks fill with people chatting, skateboarders and basketball players.

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When its completely dark, 7.30pm, there's a free light show by the towns water fountains. We were joking beforehand about it probably not being up to much...and...we were wrong! It was surprisingly good. They set a 50m square area of water alight to music, all perfectly in time and in colourful displays to match the theme of the music.

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After our day in Vigan we caught an overnight bus back to Manila. We weren't up to doing much on our last day in Manila, other than catching up on sleep and I had my first hair cut in 8 months (an interesting experience, and let's just say I think I'll be wearing my hair up for the next few months). It was time for bed as we had a 4.30am start to catch our flight to Myanmar.

Posted by bloorsontour 05:40 Archived in Philippines Comments (2)

Sagada, Philippines

Spelunking time!

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It was another early start at Randy's Guesthouse and another well organised morning; he provided our tricycle ride to the jeepney and estimated costs for onward travel (with an aim of not being ripped off). Unfortunately we nearly got ripped off at the first hurdle...

Everyone was asked to pay for the jeepney ride up front, with a guarantee of taking us straight to Sagada rather than a transfer at Bontoc. For an easy life I suggested just paying the 300pesos to take us straight to the door of our next guesthouse...I could see Jason was sceptical and rightly so. At Bontoc the driver appeared insistent on waiting for something... we explained that we had paid more money for a direct transfer... to which he laughed and pretended to be on his phone... then exclaimed that the 300pesos hadn't been given directly to him... after much arguing he started the engine and drove us to Sagada. Then we found out that other people on our bus were paying less money than us for the same journey... that really annoyed Jason and I could tell he was thinking "I told you so". I really lost my temper though when he tried to drop us off at the far end of Sagada rather than at our guesthouse...I wasn't moving until he'd completed the task we'd paid him for. Finally we got to our guesthouse, as promised, with some arguing & negotiating, but in one piece and via an extremely scenic route through rice terraces.

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I'd got an instant good feeling about Sagada; it's a pretty town, dotted with multi- coloured houses, set amongst green mountains. The main street that runs through the town has some really cute restaurants and coffee houses; our particular favourites being the Lemon Pie shop (that only sells lemon pies) and Sagada Brew (delicious beef caldereta and chocolate brownies).

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We took it easy on our first afternoon in Sagada and went for a walk to a small waterfall with a natural plunge pool to soak in and escape the heat of the day. It was freezing so I only briefly went in, but Jason was in his element.

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On the walk back we found the perfect beer break; a lady selling ice cold beers, with a bench with a view over the rice fields and glorious sun...bliss!

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Our group of 6 from Banaue split in Sagada, each couple staying at different guesthouses, but we bumped into Amy and Joel and agreed to do the cave connection tour together the next day. We set off the next day with our Filipino guides, Adam and Jacob, for a 3-4 hour underground trek that takes spelunkers between the famous Lumiang and Sumaguing Caves. You enter the caves entrance past some ancient coffins, then descend into the black with the only light coming from a kerosene lamp, and put all of your trust in the guides and hope they know what they're doing. Luckily they did. At times Adam became a human ladder for Amy, the shortest of us 4, and she climbed onto his shoulders to enable her to reach tops of rock walls. At other points I wished I was as petite as Amy because the holes that we were climbing through were tiny (I don't think your claustrophobia, mum, would suit this expedition). We had to wade through waist deep water and ascend slippery rock faces... it was so exciting! There was the option to swim in an underground pool but the water was icy cold and we still had another 1-2 hours of being underground left...so we passed on that one. (Our cave shots aren't that great as they were taken from the GoPro with no light).

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The caving definitely worked up an appetite. Amy and Joel are vegan and recommended we went to a vegetarian restaurant they'd found. It was actually really nice, with tasty bean burgers and lentil soup.

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Keen to explore more of the countryside we went to Echo Valley to see the hanging coffins that Sagada is famous for the next day Some of the coffins are hundreds of years old and the newest one is from 2010. People are buried in a foetal position and hung in small coffins on cliff sides so that they are closer to their ancestral spirits. We only saw a small collection of them, but apparently there are lots of them off the beaten track.

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We had arranged to go for an afternoon hike with our guide from yesterday, Adam. The weather had turned in the afternoon and was actually quite cold and drizzly. Not to be put off, we went for a 3 hour trek over the mountains; at some points very muddy we were in need of our machete made walking sticks. Adam seemed disappointed with the cloud covered views, but we weren't... atmospheric clouds rolling through the mountain in front of us and beautiful pink sunset clouds at the end of our walk.

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Different berries were pointed out to us along the walk; there were some bright pink ones that Jason tried, they looked poisonous so I took a picture in case Adam had misinformed us... Jason is still alive and well!

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At a sunset viewing spot there were some Filipinos on holiday and I partook in some of their photoshoot... they were taking a lot of posed photographs and I'm sure they missed the actual sunset!

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I felt so relaxed in Sagada, despite the energetic itinerary; if we'd had more time, and more money, we'd have stayed here longer and probably gone on the Crystal Caving Tour...maybe next time...

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Posted by bloorsontour 03:27 Archived in Philippines Comments (1)

Banaue and Batad

Northern Luzon

sunny 25 °C

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After a pretty sloathful period of beaches and diving, I was keen to get back into some real backpacking. We headed north of Manila on an overnight bus. Not a sleeper, but pretty comfortable nonetheless, we arrived at the same time as the bus that left an hour later than us - no wonder our journey was a lot more sedate than theirs...

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Our guesthouse collected us from the bus - Randy was an absolute star! He has his operation, which he runs pretty much single handedly, running with super efficiency. The place was simple, but spotless and with a shared hot shower. We got talking to 2 other couples and Randy thought we'd get into less trouble if we stuck together... He was also very insistent in giving us instructions piece by piece- "for now you take a walk here, I'll tell you about tomorrow when you get back"... Not sure he trusted us!

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Mai and James were a nice couple from England (well Mai is Chinese-cambodian, lived in Vietnam and now Oxford) and Joel and Amy; a couple of New Yorkers, who would be fixtures for the next few days. Despite being relatively fresh from the bus journey, we'd still only managed a few hours sleep (Soph always says she doesn't sleep, but she drools with her eyes shut for significant periods of time...). We decided on an easy day. Randy made us a breakfast and we sat around for a bit before going for a short walk to view the terraces. Short but steep and hot in the sun! We got back into town by mid-afternoon and contemplated a light lunch so that we'd be able to eat again later. in the end we realised that we wouldn't last much longer before needing sleep, so we had our fill and retired by 5:30 for a mamouth sleep.

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The next day was 7am breakfast before jumping into a tricycle (a dodgy sidecar on the side of a motorbike). It's good for waking you up! By 8:30 we had arrived at the Saddle; the point at the top of a mountain ridge where the road became impassable. The road was under construction from the saddle down to the village of Batad and so the first half of the walk was along semi laid road, dodging diggers and drainage ditches. At the point where the road gave way to a narrow trail, we encountered a pile of dynamite! Dogs running around and walkers literally stepping over a pile in the road while the worker packed it into the mountainside to make way for the road... This was a slight worry, particularly wondering whether we'd get back once they'd detonated!

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The village of Batad consisted of a few guesthouses and cafes. Most of the locals lived in small hamlets dotted amongst the rice terraces. Randy told us to have second breakfast at a little cafe overlooking the amphitheatre of rice terraces. It was pretty pleasant and despite planning to eat a couple of slices of my breakfast pizza and save the rest, I'd demolished it before realising. As we sat there, we heard explosions from where we'd come from. We couldn't go back now!

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From Batad there is a waterfall that requires a walk across the terraces and down into a valley. The views back towards the village and down through the valley are stunning!

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The walk from the saddle down to the waterfall could probably be done in 2hrs but it is a long way downhill and not so easy on the thighs! It doesn't help knowing you have it all to do on the way back up.

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The waterfall is impressive, the water icy cold and the rocks to be negotiated on the way into the water make a dignified entrance impossible: incredibly slippy. I attempted to swim to the falls but couldn't get within 5m - I even persuaded Soph to come in...

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By the time i got out of the water, I was shivering cold, which lasted about 5mins into the climb back before I was sweating again. Back in the village, we stopped at the school to get laughed at by the kids. The tough kid of the group had climbed on top of the basketball net and then plonked himself down next to Soph. She tried to make him smile, even gave him some biscuits, but he stared us out.

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We finished our walk back to our waiting tricycle feeling satisfied, but pretty tired from the day's exertions. The journey back was pretty hairy, with long waits on the edge of a precipice while construction trucks passed by. We all went out for a meal, but a couple of beers and some food and we were done. Another early night...

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Posted by bloorsontour 18:08 Archived in Philippines Tagged rice terraces northern luzon Comments (1)

Puerto Galera, Philippines

It's Christmas!!!

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When we were in Japan I had a bit of a panic about booking somewhere in advance over the Christmas and New Year period in the Philippines; I'd researched that it is massively celebrated because they are mostly Christian and that places can get extremely busy. Without really knowing too much about the areas of the Philippines I booked us into Blue Ribbon Dive Resort in Puerto Galera for 10 days; firstly because it is relatively close to Manila and secondly we knew we wanted to treat ourselves to some diving over Christmas and had heard it offered some great spots.

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We flew from Cebu City back to Manila and picked up some of our luggage from a hostel we'd left it at previously. It's then a short bus journey to Batangas (we used Swagman bus/ferry company for ease) and then an hour ferry to Puerto Galera itself. The journey on the wooden, rickety and crowded ferry was interesting; an old Australian man exclaiming to people around him that he'd been sunk twice on this style of boat over the years, but not to fear because he had his own knife with him this time to slash through the material roof if necessary...just what I wanted to hear mid-way through the rough crossing!

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Sabang Beach, Puerto Galera, looked quite pretty from the boat...green and mountainous with brightly coloured guesthouses dotted along the bay (don't let this scene fool you). It became quite clear that it is primarily a resort for white, western, middle aged men (generally speaking) to go and be entertained by pretty Filipino girls in GoGo bars. I felt really disappointed at first because we'd just left the idyllic Malapascua where we would have been more than happy spending Christmas on. Luckily we'd picked a really nice resort to stay at and immediately felt at home.

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Blue Ribbon Dive Resort is on Laguna Beach (next door to sleazy Sabang Beach) and has some of the friendliest staff working for them. Fernando was the restaurant/bar host and always made sure my cocktail glass was topped up. Melody was the really smiley waitress, who second guessed my regular order of beans on toast and gin juice. Shirley ran the reception and knew everything we needed to know. Herbert and Jeff were our Filipino dive matters that lead us on some amazing dives. The place had a really nice set up; beach front, nice bungalows, weekend bbqs and live band, cocktail hour and relaxed atmosphere.

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On Christmas Eve we were asking Shirley about what they were offering for guests on Christmas Day...they were being very cagey about it and weren't really answering our questions about Christmas food. In the end they said that we had to be in the restaurant at 8.30pm for a surprise...what could this be? We sat down to a 4 course meal (soup, mango & prawn salad, full turkey dinner and Christmas pudding with brandy cream), beautiful bouquet of flowers, bottle of wine and Christmas card... an amazing surprise from my brother, Tom, and his girlfriend, Nicola. Thanks guys, we had a lovely evening! X

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Christmas Day was definitely strange without family and friends around us. We woke up early and went for an early morning dive and had a late breakfast; I had beans on toast and jason had a Thai curry...not what we would normally have been doing at home. Unfortunately the weather was awful, warm but extremely rainy, so the plan of topping up our tans was on hold. You can see the photo of me on Christmas day pointing to the only glimmer of blue sky. So instead we lounged around on our balcony hammock, drank cocktails and had pizza for our tea. The main thing I was looking forward to was waiting for our family to wake up in the UK so I could Skype them. We managed to speak to parents, siblings and grandparents, which made me get that Christmassy feeling back.

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We were so unlucky with the weather, it seemed like we'd had days of torrential rain. We had planned to go exploring inland, hire a motorbike, kayak to our own secluded bay...but unfortunately the rain put a stop to all of this. This just meant that we stayed wet and continued to do more diving instead. You don't have to go very far to see some beautiful coral reefs when you dive here (much prettier than Malapascua) and we added some additional special sights to our diving log books too...we saw a turtle, white eyed moray eels and a pygmy seahorse (extremely rare).

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Can you spot the pygmy seahorse on this photo? I promise its there

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Nudibranches

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Lionfifish

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Pufferfish

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Juvenile sweetlip

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White eyed moray eel

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We went out on a whole day dive trip to the Verde Island, including three dives and BBQ lunch. We only managed two dives as our first dive of the day was a fail. We were diving in an area with strong currents and were in a group of 5, including our dive master. I just couldn't descend...the current was dragging me upwards and sidewards rather than down, I was kicking and still couldn't submerge myself, Jason even tried pulling me down but I continued to stay on the surface. I was so frustrated with myself. That was until all of our group met on the surface and even the experienced divers in our group couldn't get down either. Phew...I thought it was just me that was struggling. The next dive made up for us missing the first one, it was a huge wall of beautiful coral and underwater creatures. Overall we had a really good day.

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I have to include a paragraph about BBQ pork ribs. OMG!!! The pork ribs on the BBQ evening at our resort are one of the tastiest pieces of meat I've ever had. There was so much meat on them... we were big fans! They went perfectly alongside my gin juice (gin, slushed ice and lime juice).

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Unfortunately our New Years Eve celebrations were cut short. I could tell Jason had been struggling with the days dives, feeling tired and achey, and he just got worse as the evening went on. You know when Jason's ill if he can't manage an ice cold beer in the sun. He stayed out for as long as he could manage, watched a bit of a live band at our hotel, and then went to bed at 10.30...the fireworks sounded like they would have been spectacular anyway. Still feeling bad the next day we got a doctor to see him (just in case it was dengue fever or something) and the blood tests said he was fighting an infection. It took him a good few days to get over it and we had to book an extra night at Blue Ribbon too. Despite the doctors cost, I still think it's better to be safe than sorry.

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On our last day Jason was feeling a bit better, not up for diving, but instead fancied seeing what Puerto Galera town itself had to offer. It's a short jeepney ride and turned out to be a very disappointing visit. There really isn't much there; a row of shops, dirty beach and polluted roads.

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In summary...we really liked Blue Ribbon Dive Resort, disliked Sabang Beach and Puerto Galera, really enjoyed the diving, but probably would have chosen to spend Christmas in a more picturesque island area of the Philippines.

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Posted by bloorsontour 01:29 Archived in Philippines Comments (5)

Malapascua, Philippines

A whole new world to explore

In the last post, Sophie said we were short on time so needed to move on... In truth, we were really looking forward to learning to dive and had also heard the beaches of Malapascua were nicer than anything on Bohol. We fancied a couple of beach days!

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From Cebu we took a public bus for about 6hrs to Maya. It was fairly pleasant and the sun wasn't shining so the lack of air con was no problem. Maya was a simple little place. The bus dropped us at the pier, the end of the line, and we then had to wait for a critical mass to allow a boat to leave. We were encouraged to pay for a crossing with the two of us and a few locals who'd been on the mainland buying Xmas gifts. It was only about £30 for the hour long crossing. Still, there were worse places to sit and wait and we expected that people would show up shortly. Twenty minutes later, we were on our way for a total cost of about £2.50 (80pesos each).

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Arriving in Malapascua was a bit of an anticlimax...the beach where you transfer from the bangka to a flat bottom boat was fairly shabby and the island was quite flat (no palm clad mountains or dramatic karst cliffs here). Just around the south corner brings you onto Bounty Beach. Google images shows this as just about the most perfect beach you could imagine. In reality, the water is lined with boats and the palm fringe has given way to a more concrete backdrop. It's nice, but far from a postcard beach and arriving in the rain didn't help our disappointment. Next up was a search for accommodation... for £20 there are some nice bungalows and for more money, there are some pretty decent options. In our budget range we found 1...a small bungalow set back from the beach for 500pesos (£8). Blue Water Dive Resort would have been perfect, but wasn't quite...a young Spanish couple were doing their best to spruce the place up after typhoon Hainan damaged much of the island in 2013. The westerner owned restorts all seemed back on their feet, but the locally owned places were still struggling. Our room was big and had a hot shower, but came with a ring of dirt around the edge and a smell of urine that almost hurt the eyes. We hoped it would air out and that we wouldn't notice after a while.

The next day, the weather was still poor and we were not in a room that we wanted to spend anymore time in than necessary. I found a nice resort and set about bargaining for something a bit more affordable. We decided that spending a lot more might make our experience of the island a little rosier and also decided to do our PADI open water course while the dodgy weather lingered.

Arriving at Thresher Cove, we instantly felt happy! The place is stunning.

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It soon became clear that we were at a backpacker friendly resort with almost 5star service. We had our own dive gear (all as good as brand new), our own instructor and the best boats on the island. The room arrangements were a little complicated as we stayed in a deluxe room for 4nights a VILLA for another and then 3nights in a sea front cabana. The place also has a dorm, but we gave that a miss. We paid about £12 a night for the two of us which was amazing! Having posh accommodation along with dorms gave the place a nice feel and we met some good people, as well as feeling pretty relaxed!

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Our one diving experience had already given us the bug. It seemed pretty easy, but we were just put in the water and led around by an instructor holding us by the tank. It quickly became clear that doing it properly was a lot more involved. Our instructor, Julia, worked us pretty hard and had us swatting up in the evenings. We signed up for a dive package that included a deep dive with thresher sharks. Sophie found the thought a little overwhelming, particularly after our first session in the pool and realising how much we had to learn!

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In the end we signed up to do the advanced open water course too as it made financial sense with us wanting to dive the 100m long Dona Marilyn ferry wreck and night dive to see the Mandarin fish. We were assured that we had chosen to learn to dive in a pretty special place. The dive resort staff were amazing and you didn't have to lift a finger - they do everything. There's even a warm drink and dry towel waiting for you when back on the boat. Under the water we had seen things that people travel from all over the world to see. For us, seeing some coral and a few fish was often enough to have us smiling. This proved to be a problem for Soph as her mask filled up every time she smiled...

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The awesome dive with the elusive thresher sharks was a highlight

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Strong currents at the wreck dive, a test for us both.

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Diving at the beautiful Gato Island (wish we'd got more underwater photos of the incredible wildlife, but were too busy doing underwater compass work).

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Having spent most of our time on Malapascua with our heads under water or stuck in a book, we needed to celebrate our new qualifications. The resort manager and our instructor joined us, an Ozzy couple and a slightly nuts Norwegian guy for a night on the town. We played killer pool in a bar filled with the local dive bums. I won the first and Soph the second - the Bloor's were undefeated and one local was not happy! After this it was off to "Disco". Apparently "Disco" had not been held for 4 weeks, so it was going to be good...it was interesting. Basically a school disco in a basketball court. Everyone buys a bottle of brandy and stands around looking at girls while a DJ plays chart music. We left around 2am when it was still in full swing. Being drunk on the back of a motorbike as we were carried between palm trees with a starry sky above felt pretty surreal.

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One other thing of note was the Thresher Cove Christmas party! Filipinos love karaoke and party games. For most of the evening there was hysterical laughing coming from somewhere. One game involved throwing an egg from partner to partner, getting ever further away until there was one egg left - the winner. Another was a game of musical chairs with a twist. Instead of a chair, there was a chair, with a man, with an aubergine pinched between his thighs. The woman not holding an aubergene when the music stopped was out. On top of this entertainment, there was a roasted pig, blue marlin, a slow cooked beef stew and plenty to wash it down and we were invited to it all.

Sophie here...Jason has already said that we were incredibly lucky to see some of the things were saw in Malapascua on our first 9 dIves. Here's a list of some of the special and rare underwater creatures we saw: thresher sharks, frog fish, mating mandarin fish, marble rays, white tip sharks, amazing nudibranches, juvenile sweetlips, box fish, clown fish, bat fish, mantis shrimps, banded sea snakes, puffer fish, cuttlefish, damsel fish, file fish, lion fish...to name just a few. It's been an incredible experience learning how to dive and feel it's opened up a whole new world for us.

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Posted by bloorsontour 23:42 Archived in Philippines Comments (2)

Bohol, Philippines

Chocolate hills?! Now that's my kind of hill

Typhoon Ruby meant that we had to cut short our time on Palawan and so got the first available flight to Cebu island. Cebu is a relatively large central island and many people use it as a base to ferry to the other islands of the Philippines.

Cebu City is busy, polluted and noisy and I was a bit wingey (OK, I moaned a lot) about being out in the hot, humid and dusty streets trying to fill our day before taking a ferry the next morning to Bohol Island. Jason agreed to let us spend the afternoon in the huge airconed shopping mall, complete with restaurants, cinema and bowling alley. In fact, it turned out to be a bit of an afternoon treat...

First we went shopping. Thank you to our family for the Christmas money you sent us... we spent it on a GoPro (underwater camera) and hope to make use of it when we do our PADI openwater scuba course next week. Then we had a delicious greasy fast food burger at Jollibees. Jollibees are everywhere in the Philippines, more popular than McDonalds and have a cute bumblebee icon...and so much more tasty than any other fast food burger I've had (although I did go for the deluxe Hawaiian burger). Yummy! The next afternoon treat was a trip to the cinema to see Hunger Games, Mocking Jay, complete with a huge tub of popcorn. I didn't realise how much I've missed doing these normal activities we'd do at home; shopping, fast food and the cinema was an amazing treat to us while we're backpacking.

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We left Cebu City early the next day and got a ferry to Bohol; it was one of the first ferries running to the island since the typhoon and we'd heard many other travellers had been stranded for a few days. This turned out to be a brilliant few days exploring on a motorbike.

As soon as we got off the ferry we hired a motorbike and headed to our accommodation. A lot of backpackers stay in the beach area called Alona Beach, fortunately we opted to stay in the middle of the island at a cute eco-complex called Nuts Huts. It was an interesting ride getting there, with backpacks on too, down a long and bumpy path (you couldn't call it a road) and then a very steep descend down loads of steps to Nuts Huts reception.

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It was so worth the effort; beautiful, peaceful, perched right on the edge of the river. Jason was happy and made the hammock his home for the afternoon. Our hut was basic, but clean, complete with mosquito net and resident ghecko (that insisted on making a lot of noise at nighttime).

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We based ourselves at Nuts Huts for three nights and used our motorbike to explore the area. I didn't dare to drive the bike on the bumpy roads but jason did a good job, only toppling once from a stationery position (both fine, with only a mild burn from the exhaust on my ankle). The scenery is stunning, the villages really pretty and local people were extremely friendly as we drove past them (usually wishing us 'Merry Christmas' with a high five from the kids).

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We passed away hours getting lost on the village roads, exploring, until we reached our first destination...the Tarsier Sanctuary. You have to be careful which place you visit the tarsiers at because some are kept in cages. Nuts Huts recommended visiting the sanctuary where they are basically wild, but at nighttime are encouraged to go into an enclosed woodland away from predators to feed on bugs under uv-lights. In the morning somebody goes and finds where the primates are resting after their nighttime feasting so that tourists can come and get a glimpse of these rare animals. They're really cute...as big as my fist, huge eyes and sit curled in a ball on low branches. I've included a photograph below with facts about them.

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The Chocolate Hills on Bohol are on every tourist information leaflet about the Philippines. People generally told us they'd been underwhelmed when they'd visited them...us, on the otherhand, really enjoyed our trip out to them and the views were a new landscape view for us. Our motorbike ride out to them took us through the man made forest and rice paddy fields of the island, then as you get nearer to the Chocolate Hills odd lumps of grass start to appear in the landscape. You have to pay a small fee to go up to a viewing area for the hills and it can get a little busy with tourists, but overall we liked sitting at the top and looking out over these mounds of grass formed from old coral formations (it reminded me of something you'd see on a Super Mario game).

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Our evenings were quiet and relaxing at Nuts Huts, with only a few other guests to talk to and our evening meal on the terrace there wasn't a lot else to do. The food was quite good (luckily so as its your only food option while you're staying there); we sampled Filipino ginger soup, various curries and even spicy homemade burger. All enjoyed under the night sky with a beer and a fire fly show above...what more could you want?!

After a good sleep, with only the odd interruption from Mr Ghecko, we thought we'd chill out on Alona Beach. It was about a 45 minute motorbike ride away, again very scenic and part of our days entertainment anyway. Alona Beach was pleasant, white sand and turquoise water with the odd bangka (wooden boat) taking tourists on boat trips. There's a busier side to the beach with lots of restaurants (where we enjoyed breakfast on the beach front) and then a nice quiet area at the far end of the beach where we spent a couple of hours topping up our tans and snorkeling (an excuse to try out the GoPro as there were no fish).

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As a refreshing afternoon break on the beach we thought we'd give the Filipino delicacy 'halo halo' a try (sorry the picture doesn't do it the colours justice as it was taken from our phone). It's a drink/desert consisting of sugared fruits, sweetened milk, ube (purple vegetable) ice-cream and cream...very sickly... Filipinos love them.

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On our final morning at Nuts Huts Jason had time for a quick swim in the river (I chickened out of it because I couldn't see far enough in the water to see if there were crocodiles (although apparently there has never been a croc siting before...but still, just in case, I gave it a miss). We could have stayed a good few days longer on Bohol, filling our days with treks, caving and kayaking, but unfortunately we were short on time and had to move on. We made the long and bumpy motorbike ride back to the harbour in one piece and boarded a ferry back to Cebu City.

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Posted by bloorsontour 02:51 Archived in Philippines Comments (2)

Palawan, Philippines

Puerto Princesa and El Nido

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Keen to get out of Manila and without a plan as to where, Palawan sounded a good bet. We booked flights for under £50 for the 2 of us, left a load of stuff in Manila and headed off.

At the airport we watched a Brit in his early 20s, absolutely steaming, bounce from group to group exclaiming that the Philippines was the best place ever. We overheard that he'd been here for 2days and only in Manila. We managed to avoid him, though it turned out he was on our plane.

We got to JLC hostel fairly late and were up for a film and an early night. It turned out that Sophie had booked it on Agoda for the following month...after a little confusion, they had a slightly pricier ac room (700pesos, £10) available, so all was good. The place was simple, friendly and clean, with the erratic cockerels being the only downside (this would prove to be the case throughout the Philippines - they don't wait for dawn!)

Puerto Princesa is the main "city" on Palawan. It's dubbed an eco-city, which is true compared to Manila, but the roads are crammed with smoking contraptions. There was a little to do in PP, but none of it was a particular highlight...

We hired the first tricycle we came across outside our guest house, who was a boy; shy and seemingly had never done a tour of the local sights for tourists before...he told us to pay "as you wish, Sir". The going rate seemed to be p500 so we gave him that, a list of where we wanted to visit and set off for Baker's Hill for breakfast...

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We got a bit out of our "guide", Jerry (suspiciously the same name as our driver that took us from the airport the night before) on the journey. He seemed nice so we bought him a little treat from the bakery shop. He seemed surprised, then happy.

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We ate our purchases (very cheap, but not up to Japan's bakery standards) before exploring the slightly schizophrenic garden...

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A bit further up the road was "the ranch", which had decent views, a zip line (not so soon after breakfast) and some horses that we assumed you could ride. It seemed a little underwhelming and when asked to pay to see the view from a verandah, which we had essentially seen from the road, we passed and headed to our next stop...

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The Butterfly House and Tribal Village was probably the day's highlight. The butterflies were impressive enough and you were free to wander through the small garden with them flying all around. This was slightly marred by the captive crocodiles in tiny tanks. There were also scorpions, with a sign saying "Dangerous: don't touch". Naturally the Filipina guide picked them up and started handing them around...

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The tribal village was through a door at the back of the garden. The explanation was that the inhabitants visit for a few weeks from their remote rural homes to demonstrate their tribes skills in return for donations, which they then take back with them, encouraging them to keep traditions alive...we weren't quite sure, but their skills were pretty impressive with a blow pipe! They hit the middle of a 10cm diameter target from 10m and we were assured could do it from much further. We weren't going to argue, and their snake, called Ginger, was pretty cool too.

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The "Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Centre" was next. We arrived to find it closed for lunch. The onsite restaurant could have been an option to pass the time, but we decided against it and read in the shade for a while. Crocodile sisig as the first thing on the menu should have given us a hint that there wasn't so much conservation going on... The crocodile part was described as a farm to be fair, along with housing some crocodiles that had "interfered with people" and would have been killed... A few of them were HUGE at nearly 20ft and would make me think twice before swimming in any of Palawan's rivers! The rest of the place was full of dingy cages and sorry looking animals - we didn't stick around.

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The bear cat is a pretty cool looking animal...

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Last up was the Cathedral, where we would say bye to Jerry. We had a potter around, checked out the boardwalk and giant Xmas tree and grabbed some very average food.

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Determined to end the day with some better food, we ordered a seafood chowder from a nice outdoor restaurant with a huge outdoor screen showing basket ball. The sites of PP were definitely miss able, but we'd had a good day.

El nido

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People go to Palawan for El Nido and we were pretty excited to see what it was all about. The bus was arranged by our guesthouse and cost less than a tenner for the 6hr journey north. There is little chance of falling asleep, with the last few hours being along unsurfaced roads. Not what I expected. We arrived to find a pretty rustic, charming town. The place is alive with locals and backpackers. No big resorts, just laid back wooden guesthouses, bars and restaurants. We began our usual door-to-door check of establishments: "how much for your cheapest room?"... It seemed a little pricy with most places quoting over £20. After a little persistence, a little lane led us to Mountainside Inn, which was clean, friendly and p500, £7, a night with our own bathroom. We were home.

We spent the afternoon at Corong Corong Beach which was white, lined with palm trees and fairly empty. We were happy. The one cafe on the beach served decent food and was decent value. While we were there a fellow traveller came in with jellyfish stingers wrapped all around her. She was incredibly calm as her friends scraped and cut them away. She had pretty big burns all over her and only wanted a beer to take her mind off it. It put us off doing much swimming, but it seemed she had been very unlucky. We were assured that there should not be jelly fish at this time of year and that it must have been a fluke occurrence...

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The islands off El Nido are stunning and house a number of high end resorts. Though plush, they looked a little boring, so I think staying on the mainland and visiting by day is the best and most budget friendly option! There are usually 4 tour options, but as there was a typhoon warning, boats were staying close to mainland... Tour A it was. There were a fair few people in the small lagoon, which hindered the aesthetical appreciation a little. After this, our boat seemed to avoid the crowds a bit and we had some good snorkelling, a great lunch and plenty of beach relaxation. I'd prefer to have gone out on our own with a fisherman or private boat, but this was a good, cheap and easy option.

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Food wasn't particularly enticing in El Nido but the Italian proved a good option with one of the best pizzas of our trip and was surprisingly stylish once you ascended the stairs.

We requested a motorbike to do some exploring around El Nido, but after waiting for nearly 2hrs for it to arrive, we aborted and jumped in a tricycle to Corong Corong beach again. It was very relaxing and the sun was shining. It was hard to believe that a massive typhoon was about to hit the Philippines, as the news was suggesting...we decided to be safe and head back to Puerto Princesa the next day. We would have loved to spend longer in El Nido, but didn't think being stranded there in bad weather would be much fun. The road was bad enough in dry conditions! We also decided to book a flight, expecting it to be cancelled, but hoping we'd be on one of the first flights out once the storm had passed...

We took the Cherry Bus back at 8am. It started with blaring house music, which was not what we needed in the morning having had a good few tanduay rums the night before. Eventually the music gave way to a terrible, but much quieter martial arts film so we could drift off a bit. Back in PP we stayed in a very cheap guesthouse near to the airport. Soph was not impressed, but it was clean and I was more than happy with it as somewhere to crash for the night.

Having spent the evening checking weather forecasts and flight departure information, we didnt know whether we'd be flying to Cebu or hunkering down to let a typhoon pass. We woke the next day to find the sun shining and our flight was good to go...

We grabbed some breakfast at a nice little cafe and it turned out to be an anniversary of the place opening. They had a theme song, strange people in costumes walking around and gave us a free umbrella... Having got to the most relaxed/lax airport we'd ever been to we found that umbrellas were not allowed in hand luggage and the weight of the umbrella pushed us over the weight limit. There was no luggage disappearing along conveyor belts having been checked in at PP airport. Bags are just put behind the desk where a number of dodgy people mill around. We gave the umbrella to a kind looking attendant and he said our bags would be looked after... it worked out well! The security check seemed pretty primitive, though they pulled me up for having some electrical tape in my hand luggage? The water and lighter were fine! Soph was allowed to walk back out of departures, ask our baggage guy for the checked in bag back to put the tape in and then walk straight back bypassing security...

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The flight left on time. The airlines tagline was something like "have a fun flight". To facilitate this, 3 passengers were requested to head to the front of the aircraft to sing Xmas carols into the PA system in exchange for a windup hand fan...it was truly bizarre!

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Posted by bloorsontour 05:44 Archived in Philippines Comments (5)

Manila, Philippines

Welcome back to SE Asia mayhem!

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Our first impressions of the Philippines weren't that great when we were greeted by a scam taxi company at the airport; charging us 1600pesos instead of 300pesos for a taxi to our hostel. I think we'd been in Japan for too long where everyone is honest and polite, we'd let our guards down...well this won't happen again!

We stayed at Hilik Boutique Hostel in Makati; it turned out to be really well located and had some friendly staff that helped us to organise future parts of our trip in the Philippines. Right opposite our hostel there was an outdoor food market with a live band and cheap beer. Jason seems to have got a taste for their extra strong beer, Red Horse, and took to sampling a lot of the food on offer; including pork sisig, prawn curries, stuffed BBQ squid and even homemade cupcakes. We were only paying a little over £1 for a meal.

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It's difficult to know where to start your sightseeing in Manila, with a lot of the city poorly developed and not particularly tourist friendly. On the way in on the plane it appeared to be made up of a sprawling network of slums, but within this there's an area called Makati that is a modern business district and very affluent. We visited a brilliant museum called Ayala, which had a really good printworks exhibition on when we were there. There's also a visual walkway that takes you through the history of the Philippines, which I found particularly useful as I can never be bothered to read the history section of our Lonely Planet guidebooks. Other highlights of the museum include a gold exhibition and natural disasters' workshops, plus it was a nice air con break from the Manila humidity. Next door to the museum there's a series of posh shopping malls called Greenbelt 1-4; there's really expensive shops like Gucci, beautifully landscaped gardens with its very own church, loads of restaurants and a cinema. If only I wasnt backpacking I'd have spent hours browsing the shops. It really didn't feel like we were in the true Manila exploring this area...

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The next day we got a taxi to a different area of the city called Intramuros. The taxi ride there was an eye-opener; lots of homeless people, bustling shop stalls, makeshift houses from wrought iron, tonnes of children sleeping on street corners and caged cockerels ready for the next cock fight...this felt like the real Manila. In Intramuros we walked around Fort Santiago and its walls that surround this old Spanish district; quite pleasant but unfortunately a lot of it is poorly preserved ruins due to the bombings of WW2. The streets around Fort Santiago are worth exploring though, with lots of Spanish colonial buildings, decent restaurants and the Manila Cathedral. From here we walked to Rizal Park, where we were reminded it was Christmas in the blazing sun of Manila with Christmas carols being blasted out of its speakers throughout the whole of the park. It all seemed very odd to us...sun and Christmas don't normally go together.

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Just round the corner from the park there's a golf club and Jason claimed he was getting golf withdrawal symptoms...so as he was suffering I suppose we had to pay it a visit. He only went on the driving range, and to be honest I'm not sure how much he liked it because he said he felt too uncomfortable that a young Filipino girl was at his feet the whole time making tees out of mud for him...we gave her a tip for her help and for risking her life (as Jason had a couple of near misses where the club nearly left the grasp of his hand).

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A lot of people we've met hated Manila...we don't feel like that at all. Ayala Museum, Greenbelt shopping malls, Intramuros and Rizal Park are all definitely worth a visit; plus the food stalls opposite our hostel have been fab for tasty cheap Filipino eats. However, I am looking forward to some fresh air on the Philippine island of Palawan.

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Posted by bloorsontour 00:18 Archived in Philippines Comments (3)

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