At the end of January, Sara and I got our winter break from school. What do we do with two weeks off from school? Why, go travel, of course! We decided to split our time between the Philippines and Thailand. Growing up, (for some reason… I dunno why) I always had a bunch of friends from the Philippines. It has has been one of my top destinations in the world for years, so I was super excited to go. (I’ve been to Thailand before, and it’s one of Sara’s top places, so she’ll be writing the blog for there).
(For more photos from the adventure, check out my album on Facebook).
I’ll be honest our first 12 hours there were rough. We arrived at the airport at midnight only to discover that our debit card had expired in September. No worries, I thought, I can get a cash advance from my credit card. Even though I set up a travel notification, the ATM initially rejected it. Thinking I entered the PIN incorrectly, I tried a different PIN. Since I entered the wrong PIN, the credit card locked down. We were stuck at the airport without a single penny.
I’m willing to go on record and say that Filipinos are the most friendly people I’ve ever met. After spending 2 hours helping us troubleshoot our financial conundrum to no avail, a shuttle driver took us to our hotel for free. Another shuttle passenger who had witnessed our troubles handed us 1,000 pesos ($25). The receptionist spent an hour helping us get in touch with the credit card company. By 3 a.m. we finally got things sorted out and hunkered into bed. At 1:03 p.m. the next day, we were finally able to take out cash. Game on, Manila!
The rest of our time in the Philippines went much smoother. We spent the rest of the day exploring Manila. We checked out Quiapo market and Intramuros; we rode a few jeepneys. Everyone was so friendly. We’d ask for directions, and they’d go way out of our way to make sure we got where we wanted to go. I really enjoy exploring new cities, figuring out how to get around, navigating, and learning public transit. It can be challenging, but it’s fun for me.
The next day we met a guy at our hotel who lived in the town that we were headed to. We hired a driver together and headed down to Batangas via Taal and Tagaytay. Taal is a lake inside of a giant volcano crater. In the middle of the lake is an island with several other volcano craters. In one of those craters is another lake (this one literally simmering from geological activity). That lake also has an island in it. So, it’s an island in a lake in a crater in a lake in a crater on an island. How fractal! We headed up to Tagaytay, a town that overlooks the lakes and craters. We enjoyed some tasty Filipino food from a restaurant that all but hung over the edge of a cliff overlooking Taal.
After lunch we headed town to Batangas and caught a ferry to Puerto Galera, a port city on Mindoro Oriental (south of Luzon). The town is a major dive destination with a multitude of shipwrecks and coral reefs to explore. On our first full day there, we hired a bangka (boat taxi) to take us snorkeling. It was incredible. The fish were on par with what we saw in Roatan, Costa Rica two years ago. However, the variety of coral is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It ranged from neon green to iridescent blue to bright pink to nearly ultraviolet purple. We spotted a banded sea snake, which was pretty awesome (though a little unnerving).
Sadly, that excursion our first day was destined to be our last snorkel session. Despite wearing a thick layer of sunscreen, our Korean winter skin was not prepared for the tropical Filipino sun. Sara and I both got the worst sunburns we’ve had in about a decade. We opted for less solar-intensive activities for the rest of the week, including some hiking and exploring.
Puerto Galera was a strange little town. Apart from diving, the other major industry there is sex tourism. I’ve never seen so many creepy old men in one place in my entire life. As far as the expats there, men outnumbered women at least 5:1. It was also difficult to find any travelers our age. At night the streets were teeming with 60-year-old men walking around with 20ish Filipina women. It was weird.
We did find one interesting group of people (who Sara dubbed “the UN”). We hung out with them a couple evenings. There was a mid-30s Russian couple, a 40-something French guy, his 20-year-old Chinese girlfriend, and 40ish Saudi guy. The French guy was fluent in six languages, and spoke better Czech than me (even though he’d been there less than a year). The Saudi guy was hilarious. He had traveled to the Philippines alone so that he could to drink and smoke shisha (hookah) without any interruption from his wife and kids. Although he spoke very little English, he managed to forcefully and repeatedly invite us to join him for shisha. If he wasn’t actively smoking, he would inform us when he was going to pack another bowl, and demand we come back and join him for it.
Filipino food is reasonably tasty. They have particular skill with barbecue. Every night at the pier, there would be a dozen women under awnings barbecuing away. They would cook the meat on a grate inches above a bed of charcoal chunks, constantly fanning the coals with a grass fan. Sara and I could get all the barbecue we could eat and a beer for $6 total. Oh… and speaking of beer, I’ve decided that the Philippines has the best cheap beer in the world. Now, Sam Miguel is no Dark Lord or Rochefort, but I’ve never had dollar beer that tastes as good as SMB. (In fact, I’ve never had dollar beer that tastes at all!)
Our food extravaganza didn’t stop at the BBQ tho. On our last night we made friends with a few of the locals and some travelers our age at a bar floating out in the bay. After several beers one of them shouted to the shore, “BRING THE BALUTS!” Sara and I looked at each other with dismay, steeling ourselves for what was about to occur. We were going to have baluts. (Balut is a three-day fertilized duck or chicken egg. To eat, you crack the top of the shell, suck out the juice, peel the rest of the shell away, and eat the embryo. Apparently, it’s like Filipino drunk food. Back in the States we have pretzels or peanuts. They have baluts. Ok.) It was… pretty gross. I’ll be honest, it’s not my cup of tea. But it’s a cultural experience. We had to do it. So, baluts aren’t my favorite, but the rest of Filipino food is pretty good. We indulged on various meatsilogs (chicksilog, porksilog, mysterysilog), green and yellow mangos (the green ones… so tangy!), lumpia, chicken adobo, bangus (milkfish), etc.
On our last day, we hopped on a ferry and bus back to Manila. Our flight to Bangkok wasn’t until almost 10 p.m., so we killed some time in the Mall of Asia, the largest in the world. I know what you’re thinking. Davo and Sara went to the Philippines and spent time at THE MALL!?!?!! However, (according to some of my friends from the Philippines) it’s an essential cultural experience. People to hang out in the air-conned malls to escape the heat. If you’re at the Mall of Asia, you can even go ice skating on the Olympic-sized rink in the middle of the mall. We debated doing it, didn’t wanna risk breaking a wrist or elbow 3 hours before hopping on a flight to Thailand.
All in all, I’d mark the trip down as a success. The first 12 hours were rocky, but we rebounded. We got pretty sunburned, but saw some incredible coral. We at a ton of street food and didn’t get sick. We ate baluts. Final score: Philippines – 2, Hyndses – 6. Winning.