The islands of the Philippines

Philippines wasn’t in our original list of countries for the big trip. But getting licensed as scuba divers was. So after some googling it turned out that Philippines are amazing for diving and among the best in the budget range. From people met along the way we managed to narrow down that Coron is the best island for it. So after quickly touring Singapore we arrived in Manila on February 16th, 2019.

Even though it was tricky for us to get out of Singapore, as apparently you need a ticket out of Philippines to get in, it was the easiest entry into the country. On arrival no one asked any questions.

Philippines is an interesting country, also a very religious one. It’s a place where even the most ganja loving person will tell you to stay away from ganja here. The risk is too high. We heard that when a drug dealer is caught, he is not only killed. They tear the dealers house down in a day and it will look like it never existed. (First hand information from a neighbour of a dealer, who was busted.)

Duterte cracking down on gambling

Religion has contributed with the “great” invention of making divorce illegal. This apparently has created a soap opera from the simple family lives and supplied the country with many children. It is illegal to divorce, but you can separate! #Married with side relationships

Yet we saw many boys with full make-up and behaving girly. So it seemed like the rules of religion are a bit different here.

Everyone speaks excellent English, as apparently English is one of the official languages (likely due to them having being occupied by the U.S.). Road signs are only in English. You are always politely referred to as Sir or Madam.

Philippine language itself sounds very similar to Spanish actually, but they speak about 1000 different languages so I’m not exactly sure which one I mean.

People advised us to skip Manila and get out ASAP, so we booked a hotel close to the airport and flew out the next midday. Only 5kg of hand-luggage was allowed, so it was the first time during the 4 months of travel that we had to check in our bags.

Breakfast in McDonald’s – chicken and rice

Coron island

Covering the most important facts:

  • Restaurant Brujita makes the best burritos. They taste like the ones V makes at home, and are served with sour cream and/or salsa. (Their mozzarella sticks are also decent.) And try local specialty: Calamansi juice.
  • A couple of doors down from Brujita there’s a place with probably the best crepes in the world. They really do not hold back with the toppings.
  • Hop Hostel roof-top bar has an amazing party-vibe. Not to be missed!
  • Touch wood cafe is great for chilling during the day and being productive on your laptop.

Picking a dive centre for Open Water Scuba Diver license

I had chosen and messaged 3 different dive centers before our arrival and received a reply from only 1 (the only one I emailed, it seems the contact forms on the websites don’t work very well). Hence we booked only 1 night accommodation in advance, as there was no plan yet. After a microbus ride from the airport and check-in at Rickardo Valley Inn we went on a tour to meet the dive centres.

Reggae Dive Center

First up, the closest, was Reggae dive center. I had read the reviews, they have the most in Coron, and was slightly concerned about the atmosphere the German lady owner was creating. Plus there was one review where a woman started feeling bad after a dive and needed oxygen, but the oxygen on the boat didn’t work properly and their answer was on the lines ‘you should be happy we have oxygen tanks here, most boats don’t even have the tanks’.

So we asked the generic questions, whether they have space for us, how much would it cost, whether we can pay by card/transfer etc. The guy gave us answers to our questions, but nothing additional and took out forms for us to fill in. When I asked about safety we got the answer: ‘safety is our first priority.’ But his eyes clearly didn’t believe it. We thanked politely and continued to meet the others for comparison.

Corto Divers

At Corto divers the welcome was very different. Asked about the PADI open diver availabilities and that we want to do the advanced as well, the gentleman took us 2 steps back and first explained what the courses are about. How there’s SDI and PADI, that are basically the same thing, but PADI is spending a lot more on marketing. The courses were a bit more expensive than in Reggae, but the service seemed on a different level. Plus they had a residence upstairs, where a room would be available from a day after we start our course.

The gentleman introduced himself as Kasper from Norway before we left, and there were some cool French people working there as well. We had a good feeling about this, but went to eat to think things over. Got a map with where to eat, where to drink and party from Corto, so choice was pretty easy on food.

Neptune Dive Center

The third option was Neptune diving centre, the ones who had actually emailed me back. And the email was really good and informative, price wise they were similar to Corto. So we knew their offer and decided to skip meeting them personally.

The decision

After a dinner at Winnie’s we decided the contact with Kasper was good and we feel it would be great to dive with him. So we raided the ATM (all dive centers wanted 5% commission on card payments, as this is what bank would charge them) and went to book our course. After googling SDI became the choice as they are cheaper and more into incorporating latest technology into diving asap.

Getting certified as SDI Open Water Scuba Divers

Before the course started we had one day to chill and to learn theory. So we spent the day at Touchwood cafe working on the blog and hitting the books, later continued at our new home of Jim’s Castle Inn till late hours solving exercises. We of course had Lithuanian neighbours. 😀 Jim was cool.

Day 1

After an amazing Tapsilog beef breakfast (local yumminess worth a try!) we rode the local way to a hotel to use their pool for the day to learn how to dive. Later found out that Corto is the only one where the first day is in the pool as the owner is the same for the hotel and the dive centre. Others are doing it on the beach. Got confirmation that we chose the correct center for us, very much appreciated being able to focus on the exercises without having to battle waves and salty water.

Our instructor Kasper has one tattoo on his leg and that is from a drunken night in Tallinn apparently, so I took it as a sign of good omen. 🙂

We learned how to set up the equipment and proceeded to the exercises in the pool.

Every time I’ve had to use diving equipment previously I always got this mental block of not being able to breathe under water and panic. So we tried to go under water, I was suffocating and panicked and went to the surface again. We tried again, same thing. And again, and again. About 5 times, I almost thought this is it, there will be no diving for me. But then the little smartness I have kicked in and I figured out what is causing it: I’m trying to breathe through my nose under water, but with the mask on it’s not possible obviously, so it signals as if I can’t get enough air. I then tried to go under water holding my nose with the fingers, it was fine, I let go, still fine. The more times we went up and down, the less I needed to hold my nose.

Some exercises were very uncomfortable. E.g. taking your mask off under water and breathing without it for 1 minute. V was very good and succeeded on the first try. I had to try a couple of times and then did it by holding my nose in the end. Filling the mask with water and clearing it was also pretty scary.

The day was great fun though, and we progressed a lot, from me not being able to go underwater to using alternative air source and testing how it feels when you run out of air.
We enjoyed a tasty lunch at the hotels resto afterwards, included in our package.

Later we had a walk in the hotel area and discovered the interesting local life:

Day 2

Today we went out with a boat, called Niña de Gibraltar, and dived at 2 sites. We practiced the Giant Stride, which means you basically step off the boat into the water. Took a little bit of courage the first time, I was afraid I will hit my tank against the boat. But second time was already better. And the board crew was very nice helping us put the fins on etc. We saw pretty corals, various fish and what I call “box”-fish, the ones that look like someone has blown air in them. Love them! Second dive was much better, could keep much better buoyancy. And it’s not as scary to fill goggles with water anymore. Maximum depth was 12 meters.

Our private Niña de Gibraltar

Gilbert cooked us excellent lunch on the boat: Mung beans with veggies in coconut curry, tasty chicken, hot dog and rice. Need to find the recipe for these beans, amazing! NB! Fanta in called Royal in the Philippines.

Delicious lunch

A very cool as useful phase we learned for Buddy-check was Breakfast With Rice And Fish (BCD Weights Releases Air Final check).

Day 3

Amazing first dive at Barracuda lake. No wetsuit. On the top the water is ca 26C degrees. From ca 16-17 meters deep the water temperature increases to 37C. Amazingly warm. If all dives could be so warm. Cold to come up though – the 26C that felt decent when going in, feels freezing when surfacing from the 37C. You can see a clear line where the 2 meet, as if there’s a surface area inside the lake.

The other 2 dives were wreck-dives. Oh wow! These things are massive and within 75 years the coral life has completely covered them. We saw the engine room on one, swimming a little inside – MASSIVE!

Swimming without mask and no air scenarios not scary at all anymore. Maximum depth today was 18.9m, and we were diving with the computer the whole day.
In the evening we took the test, V nailed it with 98% and I passed with 92%. Officially certified as scuba divers.

Getting certified as SDI Advanced Open Water Scuba Divers

3 days of diving was not enough, and along the way of our trip we met people who said it’s a good idea to do the advanced immediately. Plus Coron as the world capital for wreck diving makes an excellent location for advanced diving.

Deep and Navigation were compulsory, in addition we picked Nitrox, Wreck and Computer Dive. Night diving was unfortunately not available, the coast guards don’t allow it, and too warm for a dry-suit dive. The 2 would have otherwise been the choices.

Day 4

Started with the deep dive, straight to 30m deep and inside the wreck (yes, advanced doesn’t usually include going inside the wreck, but that’s the advantage of Philippines). I felt like a bull in the china shop – buoyancy control really shows here. Going in downwards head first though a tiny hole, trying not to hit anything, doesn’t work out as well as intended. But I got through. Everything is supposed to seem closer and bigger in the water, but I feel like they are always closer than I see them. 😀 Going so deep we could have felt being narked (sort of hoping for it), but neither V nor I felt anything (unfortunately). Diving with Nitrox felt the same as with normal air, another fun dive in the wreck. Currents were pretty strong in some places, especially uncomfortable when at the safety-stop for 3 minutes.

Day 5

First up was Navigation training in our favorite Barracuda lake. As people might know my natural navigation abilities are not always the best, so I expected to fail epically. It was still fun though, and Kasper made it very easy for us with the advice: If you need to go right, turn the compass to the left and vice versa. At the end we took our fins off and did some fun moonwalking at the bottom of the lake and let a fishy nibble on my fingers.

After 2 more wreck dives I felt less and less like a bull in the china shop. The learning curve in diving is nicely steep, I like it. I saw all colors still at 20m, was shocked and wanted to show the others but didn’t manage to explain the word colour in the water. 😀

On the last dive in the wreck we explored an air pocket inside it. Felt like in Titanic. 😀 It’s not recommended to breathe this old air, so we didn’t take the regulator out, but it was still pretty cool.

We went through the questions on the boat and were officially Advanced divers with 10 dives in the books. The next day we also took the test for Nitrox, so we can dive with it everywhere now. Whoop whoop. 👏👏

Video from Quirin to be added upon receiving it.

In the evening, on our way to Hop Hostel for celebratory drinks, we spotted a unique doctor’s office. One child was vaccinating others, and took the work very seriously. 🙂

Touring around Coron Island and stay at Ocam Ocam

After maximising our utility on diving and hitting the diminishing returns we took a day off to just chill. Was a bit weird not spending it on the boat. And somehow the idea of chilling didn’t materialise so well as we ended up spending it planning and getting frustrated trying to buy internal tickets in the Philippines. I have been trying to buy them for 2 days now, spending hours on it. The website shows you it’s available, you get till the end with all the details filled in and trying to pay and then it tells you something went wrong please search again.

But we finally managed to put the plan in place for the Philippines and bought tickets to Vietnam. The internal flights are very expensive. We wanted to fly directly from Coron to Siargao, but the price was ca 200 EUR pp, so we decided to take the ferry to El Nido, spend a day there and fly out from Puerto Princesa. Worked out slightly cheaper and at least we are seeing a bit more for the amount of money. In comparison flights to Vietnam were only 50 EUR pp. 😀

After our “chill day” we rented a motorbike Honda XR on Monday morning and spent 24 hours going around the island.

Our baby for 24 hours

Half the circle was more dirt-road, where we had to go through a river (crazy!) and next to fields, the other part was a very nice highway.

Looking at the map we went right until Borac and turned left towards the top of the island and made a round

There were some beautiful views over a couple of islands with perfectly white sands and turquoise water. This is what it seems from the distance. When you actually stand on the beaches here they are are not as amazing looking. Especially Ocam Ocam was praised a lot. It’s a nice beach, but I wouldn’t say an amazing one. Needs cleaning for seaweed and the base is covered with corals. It doesn’t get deep for a long time, so swimming is not convenient. We arrived too late to make it to the Black island, so not sure if that is much more spectacular. But it’s still a great place.

The charm comes from having a lot of locals, who live there and not being full of tourists and commercialized. We got a cute basic hut on the beach for 500 peso, overlooking the beach. A local called Paps cooked us food, there were super cute dogs in all sizes, and we had some beers at the only resto H-Nice beach bar.

Sunset was beautiful! A dog joined our family, blended in very smoothly. <3

Amazing to sleep outside, under a mosquito net. It wasn’t too hot or too cold, just perfect.

I tried to meditate for the first time after Vipassana course. But there was a birthday party happening at our place. You can imagine the noise level created when everyone from the village is invited. Children were very excited. So I probably didn’t manage to zone out for a single second into my practice.

The next morning we woke up with the sunrise and had a swim.

The dog (from last night and swim video) also came with us to the bike. Such a cutiepie.

Our bike wouldn’t start, but I asked a schoolboy and he got the mechanic to come. It didn’t seem very straight forward what was wrong, but he fixed it and from village to village we made it back smoothly to Coron town proper.

There is a significant difference in mentality here compared to Europe/Baltic’s. Here they proudly speak the English they can (even if it’s faulty). They say hello and wave to us passing by on a bike.

In other observations: the churches are mostly normal buildings without crosses, yet there’s many of them. They are mostly in this light blue colour.

A quick breakfast of tasty granola and yoghurt at Summer cafe and we got a tricycle to the ferry station towards El Nido.

The perfect quote for me – something I’m working on!

Palawan

The ferry took almost 5 hours, not 3-4 hours as advertised. But the boat was nice and comfortable.

Boat from Coron to El Nido

In El Nido people were a lot more dressed up and it had more hip cafes and restos. We had dinner at the Happiness beach bar – tasty Israeli food, happy hour cocktails not so tasty. It seemed like a cool place, they also had a hostel and were offering island hopping tours so we decided to book with them. Hoping that it will be a cool crowd from the hostel on the boat with us. We were tired, from the early start and travels so skipped exploring the famous party scene.

Island hopping tour

The next morning we were back at Happiness by 8:30 as agreed, excited for the snorkeling tour that was offered. But things didn’t turn out so well at all.

My full rant about the day can be found in a separate blog here.

In short this was my worst nightmare:

  • The main guy on the boat turned out to be an entertainer pulling cheap card tricks and making people sing
  • There was a lot of waiting
  • Snorkeling equipment was children sized, even though new
  • There were insane amounts on jellyfish in the water, not much other fish or corals to look at
  • Super touristy, a lot of people in every stop
  • We had to pay extra 100 per person to eat lunch at the shrine
  • Towels and water were supposed to be included – the former we never saw and water was provided only during the lunch break. Full day of snorkeling dehydrated.
  • Captain drove like a maniac splashing everyone (including their towels) soaking wet

Seeing a massive turtle swim in the open waters was the (only) highlight of the day.

Puerto Princesa

The next morning after breakfast we got picked up by a microbus and driven to Puerto Princesa. As internet was very good at the hostel we got excellent hot-dogs for dinner from a nearby stand and worked on things in the lounge area drinking cider and tea. V got a hot-dog for breakfast and talking to the Filipino owner there it turned our her husband in Finnish and she knows the word ‘perkele’.

Amazing hot-dogs

We flew to Siargao.

Siargao

We flew to the amazingly green Siargao

Siargao is a stunning island. It’s so green.

The area of General Luna is a proper surfer style village, with it’s boutique shops selling everything from bikinis to surf boards.

There’s barefoot policy in most places, including fancy restaurants and surf shops.

They are also one of those great places that have started cracking down on plastic. You get no plastic bags in the shops, always have to bring your own.

Accommodation is not cheap though. Hostel bed prices start from 7 EUR, most of them 10 EUR. We stayed the first weekend in a mixed dorm, it was hot.

Then we spotted a sign for Matanjak on the street and got a nice double-room with a balcony, private bathroom and a shared kitchen for 25 EUR a night, one of the cheapest options. Cleaning of the room was done daily. They are not on booking.com, or online. Reservations by phone on +63 910 548 5323.

Wifi and 3G are shockingly bad in the Philippines. The other day we went to a very nice cafe Bake X to do some work on laptops. Asked for the wifi password and got a reply that there’s no wifi as the internet signal doesn’t reach this corner somehow. This place is on the main street, ca 400m from our hotel.

Touring the island with a scooter was fantastic! We rented one for 5 days from our hostel (350 peso/day) and it was a new and good one. The beaches are not super impressive. Don’t get me wrong, they are still nice, but the sand is not fully white and the water level is very low for a long time. However, the large palm forests and greenery are so cool and mesmerising.

Men were working the fields and collecting rice. More and more houses are arising out of stone here, yet still plenty of (bamboo) huts around.

If you are in Siargao on a budget, then the best place to eat at is J&M Carenderia. Local place, with plenty foreigners eating, where vegetarian dishes are 30 peso and meat 50 peso. Or Mama’s Grill, where you can get lots of seafood and tasty MEAT from a grill at great prices.

Delicious Mama’s grill meat

Surfing

I took 2 surf lessons during our week in Siargao. As I’m not fully a beginner I chose the guiding, rather than a full lesson with theory and basics on land.

Kermit

The first lesson was with Kermit surf school, the first surf school ever opened in Siargao. We went the day before to book the lesson and it was advertised at 2500 peso online, but had to pay only 1200 peso when booking in their office!

I was asked to be there at 10. After ca 30mins of waiting they concluded that my teacher is not showing up. So they joined me in with a Finnish couple and we had 2 guides for the 3 of us.

During the waiting it started raining, and when we were scootering to the boat it started pouring. We were “smart” of course and had ALL our valuables with us (computer, ipad, camera, etc), luckily they were in a dry bag. This was the first time we saw rain during our Asian trip. Almost 5 months into the travels.

One of the guides told me that we’ll take a boat, but he doesn’t know how much it will cost. I didn’t feel like I had much option, as I didn’t have my own teacher. So we got on the boat in the rain and cold headed towards an island with a good break. As it was raining I didn’t really think about sunscreen, just took off my wet clothes and jumped into the water and on my 8″ board. The sun even came out for a bit to shine on us at some point. This meant that during the 11-13 o’clock surfing without any sunscreen I badly burnt my ass and face. 😀 The burn felt so deep as if it’s some serious degree burn. I’m not sure if that’s possible though.

The waves were decent. I also liked that the guides tried to get me to catch the bigger ones. “Lets find a big mama for you”, one of them said to me. After the disaster of surfing in India I was afraid this will be the same. But it was not. It was nice to surf. There were a couple of rocks in a very bad location though, they worried me a bit and I did go into them once or twice. I surfed very long a couple of times, which meant that I had to paddle back a lot. After an hour I could feel my unfitness starting to show and the paddling got more and more difficult. A big self-motivation exercise to keep your arms moving. And a lot of cursing that I need to hit the gym before I fulfil my surfing dreams.

V was watching the whole show from the boat. We had to pay 400 pesos for the boat after. I felt that was a bit much considering I had paid the full price for an individual guide, who didn’t show up. And the whole thing did feel a bit unprofessional, I didn’t have a good “aftertaste”.

Harana

The second lesson I took with Harana surf school. And this was a fully professional and such a nice experience. As my ass was still recovering after 3 days it fit me perfect that surfing was early in the morning at 7am. I again went with the guiding, it’s half the price from a normal lesson. The girl said the guides won’t push me, which I liked as then I will become a more independent surfer. In the morning it turned out the information was passed on to the guide as he told me ‘so you don’t want to be pushed I heard’. 😀 My guide Dion made me show my surfing move. When he saw I seem to know my thing he quickly rode to the surfing spot to check the waves and rushed back to get us.

V and I had watched the sunrise on the pier of Cloud 9 that morning. And witnessed one mans battle with the waves. It looked like a lot of work and struggle. Next thing you know I was in the same waters with Dion. Cloud 9 is the most famous surfing spot on the island, especially for pros. We surfed on the Quicksilver side of it.

There were some massive mamas coming in at some point before which I heard Dion’s hectic words “Paddle out!” Everyone paddled, except for some pros who also seemed to struggle riding them. As I had to paddle a lot more myself to catch my waves (no pushing) then the first times were difficult. Not enough paddling and too slow standing up. But then I caught one and proved to myself that I can do it. The confidence came. I confirmed with Dion just in case that he didn’t push me, because it felt really good. After that it was better, we were both happier and had fun.

Dion took his guiding job very seriously. He gave me some very good tips, e.g. need to put the front foot more forward and made sure I’m always in the middle of the board when paddling. It was really fun. Also the other guides in the water created a good vibe. One girl lost her top in a wave and flashed everyone, so the guys were excited. 😀

Later on the waves died out a bit, so there was more waiting. I was actually a bit happy about is as usual I was getting tired. 1 hour is always good, second hour requires a lot of self-motivation. I got to carry Dions pro board back to the scooter and one of the guides said I look like a real pro. Hahah.

Around lunchtime I got a message from the administration girl: “Boys are surfing at 10am tomorrow if you wanna join them”. This message made me so happy. It felt like my surfing skills have been approved and I have been accepted to the surfing community.
I didn’t join them though. If it would have been early in the morning I might have considered it. But burning my ass was not an option and we were running out of money. V always says I like the idea of surfing more than the actual surfing. He might be right.

I swallowed quite a lot of water battling the waves. For the first time I had a gag reflex every time some ocean water tried to enter my body. It seems plenty of it still got inside, as the next morning I had diarrhoea and system wanted to get rid of something.
My skin is also not doing so well, forehead has been attacked.

Kitesurfing

V was supposed to get his IKO kitesurfing license in Siargao. However, after visiting the 2 places that offer lessons here it turned out that 1 hour is 100 USD. That was a bit expensive for our budget. We could have made it work though, but the surf didn’t seem too interesting as there was very little wind. Plus it was raining on quite a few days.

Wakeboarding

So instead of kitesurfing we spent half a day in the wakepark. That was really chill. A Belgian guy and a Spanish girl joined our group. She was a very energetic one, and created a fun atmosphere. I didn’t have enough courage to go into the jump, as I was struggling enough times in the corners. But V jumped, tried to 360, rode the board with no bindings etc. We expected to have a serious muscle ache for a week, but it turned out not so bad.

Yoga

Yoga was at Buddha, which was next door to our hotel. But one lesson was 400 pesos, so my budget-minded self with a sunburnt ass didn’t go in the end.

Party scene

On the last evening we checked out the party scene as well. Proper surfing style thing. Very cool. There was a big party at a Rum Bar, but that was a taxi ride away and we were really tired, and not so much party people anyway, so we didn’t go. Even though we could have joined the Spanish girl and their friends. We flew out the next day to Manila. Arriving to this island we found a french couple to join us on a tuc-tuc and got to the city half price. And now our landlady organised a rickshaw for us for a lot cheaper than the transfer price.

Loose Keys

Manila

The capital city was a positive surprise. The financial area looks very good, like Kuala Lumpur, and has many good places for food. It’s a place where roosters* live a street away from JP Morgan Chase and the rich have their private areas in the middle of the city. A bit frustrating to navigate with GoogleMaps as it doesn’t indicate where the guards stop you and the lanes are not passable.

*The sound of a rooster waking you up in the morning is signature for Philippines – happened every day during our 3 weeks here. 🙂

We did also visit the more local areas, where masses go to church and buy Jesus souvenirs on the market.

Yet, Intramuros area was touristy and local at the same time, very atmospheric.

It does smell strongly like piss in many parts of the streets and we were happy to avoid the bus system that seemed chaotic. Taking the metro and trains was not very efficient as the walk is long, platform doesn’t indicate when the next train will arrive, and doesn’t even have the list of next stops.

There seem to be many dorms, especially for women. Big signs of renting bed space all over the city.

Next up: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Expenses

Overall Philippines are rather expensive, compared to the other SEA countries we visited. A nice place to visit, but sucked our budget dry a bit too quickly. We spent in total 3166 EUR, of which 1190 EUR on diving. To move between the islands flying is the most efficient option (unless you have months of time). It’s a lot cheaper to fly from Philippines to Vietnam than to fly internally.

ATMs charge a fee and SIM cards are expensive, with a frustrating 3G connection.

Yet you can buy gummy bears for 1 peso each and tasty chocolate bars for 10 pesos. 🙂

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