Cebu - El Nido - Hong Kong
After enduring a few months of grey skies in Luxembourg, we were thrilled to fly out of Europe for a sunny holiday adventure. With its untouched natural beauty and crystal waters, we decided to ring in the New Year from the Philippines. In total, our journey required 32 hours in the air, covering 14,000 flight miles (that's more than halfway around the equator). We headed out of Luxembourg early December 23rd on a two-hour drive through dense fog to Frankfurt Airport. Despite it being only a few days before Christmas, the international terminal was a ghost town. We expedited the check-in process even further by misreading German signage and passing through the military and crew immigration line.
We flew on Cathay Pacific Airlines for 11 hours and touched down in Hong Kong the morning of December 24th. It's a great feeling to wake up on a flight and see multiple missed meal stickers on your headrest. To celebrate Christmas Eve, we ordered a dim sum feast looking out over the tarmac. Although it was only 7am local time, Dave ordered a Tsingtao beer to celebrate touching down in Asia. Then we boarded our next flight to Cebu, Philippines and landed a few hours later. Although tired from sitting still, we then hopped in a private shuttle for a three hour windy, bumpy, traffic-filled car ride through cities, towns and countryside to Moalboal.
Our first impression of the Philippines was in Cebu City, which is fairly downtrodden but developing, with tons of crowds and pollution. One of the first things a westerner will notice is that the primary mode of transportation is motorbike. Entire families cram onto one bike - usually with a toddler riding the father's lap on the front, and the mother holding another child in the back - while none of the children wear helmets. Although exhausted, we were excited escape the city area and head down the island coast to the Blue Orchid Resort.
We arrived at the tiny seaside resort and checked in to the honeymoon suite. We were amused to find it featured a ping pong table, punching bag, yoga area, full open air living room with the only television at the resort, and, the best part, a giant roof deck. The Blue Orchid is the last resort along Moalboal's coast, so from the roof deck we had unobstructed views of land and sea. We met Erin's sister Aubrey and her friends for dinner at the local restaurant and enjoyed a dinner of Asian specialties. Apart from chicken adobo, we found that the Philippines didn't offer many local specialties to try and that menus often included Chinese, Thai, Indian and western cuisines. Although the food was good, we did miss tasting the local specialties like we have done on our other trips to southeast Asia.
For our first full day, we woke up at dawn and walked along the beach at sunrise. We entered the water with no one else in site and swam out to where the reef dropped off into the abyss. This was the best snorkeling we've ever done, with healthy corals and tons of brightly colored fish. After enjoying a local pork, rice and fried egg breakfast, we took what was meant to be a quick nap that lasted until late afternoon. We awoke very confused at the time and place through a fog of jet lag. Dave raced out of the room to rent a semi-automatic dirt bike from the proprietor and by the time Erin dressed and made it to reception, they told her he had driven off (for a bit of practice). We crusied together on the bike into the nearby backpacker town for dinner and drinks with Aubrey and friends. Riding a dirt bike down the unpaved roads and through tiny villages was a great way to get a feel for the area. We immediately noticed that due to the dense jungle and small living spaces, many people spend time in the road areas paying no heed to oncoming traffic. Kids play in the road unsupervised and people even set tables and chairs for dinner in the road. Dogs meander in the roadways with no regard for honking horns.
We enjoyed sundowners at a backpacker joint called Chili Bar and then headed to dinner at a restaurant called Pleasure Principles that served delicious fresh seafood. We indulged in giant shrimp spiced with garlic and chili for Christmas dinner. With our maladjusted body-clocks, we spent the evening scanning for stars, patiently waiting for the sun to rise.
Kawasan Falls Canyoneering
Our first big adventure came the day after Christmas, when we set out for a canyoneering trip in the nearby Kawasan waterfalls. To start the day, we had an early breakfast and climbed into a jeepney, which are the most popular means of group transport in the Philippines. Ours was almost like a pick up truck with a roof, where the back includes two benches that face each other with open windows along each side. We picked up Aubrey, Kara and Michelle from their shed-like group hostel and headed further down the coast to Badian. We stopped at the canyoneering offices to gear up. Then were told 2 by 2 to hop onto the back of waiting motorcycles. Dave and Erin hopped on together and the driver gunned it up a craggy mountain path. With nothing to hold on to, Dave nearly flew off when we hit some unexpected bumps. Aubrey and Michelle's driver was even more adventurous and throttled past Erin and Dave while Aubrey doled out an evil stare as she left us in the dust.
After the shaky ride, we hiked down through the jungle with views of lush mountains into the waterfall canyon. The water was a bright neon turquoise that felt refreshing after the humid hike. We immediately jumped in for 3 hours of rapid floats, natural waterslides, rock climbs and precision jumps ranging from ten to forty feet. Our guides spend all their time in the valley and were jumping from rock to rock like parkour athletes. This was one of the best experiences of the trip as we immersed ourselves in nature without crowds around. At the end, the destination waterfall was filled with people and we were grateful to have traversed down on our own rather than just driving up to the main waterfall as most people do. We headed home in the jeepney for rest and then dirt-biked to the small town for dinner.
Whale Shark Encounter
We eagerly started the adventure at 5am by driving through a rainstorm further down the coast and around to the other side of the island to swim with whale sharks in Oslob. A typhoon landed on the Philippines just as we did, and we felt the effects our whole trip with blackouts and rough seas. The car ride took nearly 3 hours as there aren't yet any roads built across the island in the area. The downpour was so severe, Dave paused to ask if we should abort. Once we arrived and geared up, we were told we'd have to wait an hour before the boat could take us out. Once it was finally our turn, we were rowed out from the shore. As we approached the whale sharks, all you could see were dorsal fins attached to a massive grey shadow. A woman in our boat called out, "Is that what we are supposed to be swimming with?" While most visitors sit in the boat with life jackets on, we were the first to rip ours off and dive right in. Amidst the chaotic feeding frenzy, every time Erin dove down to get closer to the animals she splashed the old ladies looking over the edge of their boats. We got to spend 30 minutes diving and observing the graceful bohemoths and we felt grateful that we got the chance to interact with them in their element.
We headed back to Moalboal on the long, windy ride along the coast - both stinking of fishy whaleshark chum. We got cleaned up and then had lunch followed by massages in an open air hut overlooking the sea. We took an afternoon siesta and then enjoyed noodles, fruit shakes and fried rice for our last night in Cebu. Throughout the trip, we were reminded that things in the Philippines are not yet streamlined for tourism as they are in other SE Asia destinations like Thailand. Although English is widespread, getting around is difficult and making reservations is often frustrating. The Philippines is still best suited for backpackers who can afford to spend a full day at a time on transportation alone. For example, none of the ATM's worked in Cebu, so it was impossible to take out local currency. Also, sometimes transportation between islands is limited to once a week. However, we're positive that once more roadways are paved and more safety measures are levied, travellers will miss the "good old days" and speak fondly of the minor frustrations.
Cebu to El Nido
We woke at sunrise and did a chilly morning snorkel. The tide was so low, we walked all the way out to the reef. After an awesome morning session, we had breakfast and hopped in a van for a long, 4 hour ride back to Cebu city. Upon arrival, we parked ourselves at the airport food court and sampled local lechon (roasted pork) while we waited. We booked a flight to Palawan - another Filipino Island - on an airline called Air Swift that is owned by a consortium of luxury resorts. After we chowed down on the local flavors, the flight crew handed us a box of spaghetti upon check-in, which did not look quite as appetizing. We hopped on the 40 seat prop plane and two hours later landed in El Nido, the tiny airstrip at the Northern end of Palawan Island. This was our most rugged airport experience to date. It consisted only of two open-air pavillions and one gravelly runway. We were greeted as we walked off the plane by a neon, spray-painted jeepney that lead us to one of the pavillions, where we were serenaded by singers and served coconut sweets while we waited for our bags.
Through a series of unexpected upgrades due to a booking error, we stayed on small private island resort with a few over-water bungalows just off the coast of El Nido. Our driver picked us up at the airport and drove us to a waiting speedboat around sunset. We felt like we were heading to a Bond villain's lair as we sped away from civilization out to sea, only to pull up to a mountainous island 25 minutes later. Due to the rough seas from the typhoon hitting the northern part of the country, we could not pull up directly to the pier. Instead, we saw 4 teenagers dive into the massive waves, climb onto a floating platform, and tug ropes to get us close enough to jump onto the pier. We hopped on the platform with our luggage and were pulled to the pier, where we were greeted and shown to our bungalow. We enjoyed the relative luxury of the island compared to Moalboal - we had an outdoor shower, sunken tub, porch with outdoor sofa and even a TV that rose out of the bed. Although we didn't watch TV during the trip it was a cool feature. After the long travel day, we chewed on cashwews and dried banana that was left out for us as a welcome snack and zonked out in lieu of dinner. As is common in this part of the world, there was a power outage at night and we woke up in the middle of the night in the pitch black with typhoon ocean waves pounding outside as our only stimulus.
For our first full day in Palawan, we were supposed to head out on a private island hopping boat tour with Aubrey and her friends. We were up at 7am for breakfast and then headed over to the pier to await the boat, but nobody came, leaving us feeling helpless. We asked our resort to call the boat captain, and it turned out that he picked up Aubrey and then went to the wrong place. Once he realized he'd have to pick us up on our island off the coast of El Nido, he refused and the back and forth cost us a couple hours of time. Eventually the driver obtained a coast guard permit to pick us up and we saw Aubrey and friends heading around the island bend in a rickety bamboo boat captained by a couple Filipino teenagers named Alvin and Clark. Alvin wore a brightly colored head scarf and welcomed us aboard the old vessel as we headed off for 6 hours of exploring uninhabited islands and lagoons.
Before sunset we headed back to Cauayan Island for a light dinner and late night massages. The spa at Cauayan Island is set in an over-water bungalow along the edge of a rocky seaside cliff. While we walked along the illuminated pier to the bungalow, we were splashed by giant crashing waves. The walk felt surreal as we looked up at the thousands of stars dotting the sky. We headed into the spa bungalow and were greeted by our masseuses, who started our treatments with warm foot-baths. We followed them into the massage room and were amazed with what we saw. When we laid face down on the massage tables, we looked down through glass floors into the sea, with waves and fish swimming in the illuminated water below. This view, topped with the fatigue from the day and great massages made this one of the best spa experiences we've had in our travels.
We woke up at dawn for a morning yoga session and for a moment to chill on our outdoor lounge as we watched the waves crash and tides roll in. We enjoyed breakfast al fresco and then decided that we would like to conquer the island by hiking to its highest viewpoints. As nothing seems to be easy in the Philippines, the hotel insisted we wait for a guide. They also required us to sign a waiver. We met with our guide Eddie, a night security guard on the island who was wearing gym shorts and flip flops for a steep hike up the first side of the island. We were slipping as we climbed up and down the hills but Eddie seemed just fine in his cheap rubber shoes. We reached the top of the first side quickly and were stunned with the views of the entire island and surrounding land masses and sea. We decided to hike the highest peak on the other side of the island, and Eddie radioed for permission from the resort, promising that we were capable of making the more grueling climb. For the second hike we were drenched with sweat in the jungle heat but we pressed on. After a few minutes, the path turned to a steep rock face and Eddie let us know that it was time to start climbing. The rocks were extremely sharp and some of the boulders wobbled beneath us. We climbed from rock to rock and then along a steep ridge where we held onto branches to avoid a fall. After about 25 minutes, we reached the peak and were completely in awe. There were islands and crystal waters as far as we could see, and we had a bird's eye view of our island and resort. We felt adrenaline from the triumph and Eddie led us back down the cliffs for a dip and a frozen watermelon juice slushie. We spent the rest of the day hanging out in the spa, listening to podcasts as we chilled, drinking tropical cocktails and gazing at the starry skies.
We left Cauayan Island during the early morning hours for the mainland, where we met up with Aubrey and dropped our bags at our next hotel. Compared to the private island, this was on the rustic end of the spectrum. We walked around El Nido town as motorbikes, trikes and fellow travellers bustled through the streets from all directions. Dave felt that El Nido town represented heaven, a conglomeration of souls interacting to create positive vibrations in the midst of perfect nature (with bomb falafel).
The mode of tourist transportation in El Nido is Trike - a motorcycle attached to a sidecar with metal housing and no seatbelts. They ride is bumpy and unwieldy and the drivers often asked us to reposition ourselves to better balance the trike on obstacles like cliffs and sand.
After scoping out the town, we rented scooters to explore the north end of the island. Once we mounted the bikes, we truly appreciated the sense of freedom. The paved road soon turned to bumpy dirt offroading. The typhoon left many puddles and slippery patches to traverse a la enduro motocross. Dave enjoyed conquering osbtacles like a wooden bridge made by 2x4's that required balance and daring. Dave and Aubrey drove, and eventually we reached Nacpan Beach, a giant pristine stretch of white sand dotted with hundreds of palm trees and a few island cafes. We swam in the perfect turquoise waves and then had lunch. We were totally enchanted by a group of four little girls who sang Christmas songs to us. They didn't know the right words which made it even more charming. The girls' family operated a little stand on the far end of the beach. We hung out and ordered a few coconuts to drink. Upon our order, the dad scurried 40 feet up a palm tree and cut down four coconuts with a machete. Before climbing down he tossed his knife down, seemingly without regard for the people below. When he arrived back to the ground, he was covered in painful ants. He cut the tops off of the coconuts and handed us each a straw. The taste of the fresh cocunut water was sweet and the moment was unforgettable.
On our way home from Nacpan beach we noticed Aubrey was lagging behind, so we turned around and went back to find Aubrey in tears limping around the sandy path with a bloody foot. We were told a local driver would drop her off in his motorbike tricycle at the "Health Center" which we assumed was a local med center. We followed his trike as he pulled up to a country farmhouse about 5 minutes later. We followed a path behind the house to a shed with loitering dogs and chickens. Inside the shed were at least 6 kids, a few adults and a kind grandma, who was sweetly inspecting Aubrey's wound. At this point we realized it wasn't a super serious injury so we found humor in the moment, as the tiny granddaughter peered totally unfazed at Aubrey's bloody toe, and as chickens dashed about. Aubrey's cut wouldn't allow her to scooter back, so one of the family drove the scooter back into town while Aubrey headed to a legit medical center for a few shots and meds.
New Years Eve
In the evening we got ready to spend New Years Eve in the small island town filled with dive shops, beach side restaurants and clothing boutiques selling sarongs, beach wear, fireworks and snacks. Erin went to plug in her phone near the bed and spotted a giant gecko as big as a machete on the wall right next to the charger. Especially after just coming over from a luxury resort, this was not the ideal thing to see hovering near the bed. Erin and Dave asked for a new room while Aubrey was totally cool with sleeping in the gecko room - she was in a shed a few days before so this was like a palace. We spent the evening walking around town (or in Aubrey's case limping around town) and ate Mediterranean food at a local cafe. On our walk home we struggled to avoid the drunken idiots setting off fireworks in the middle of the road, We were in bed before midnight although not sleeping, as we counted our new lizard friends on the walls and ceiling.
On New Years' Day, we had one last breakfast on Palawan with a few annoying German people who were also staying at our lizard hotel. A teenage German kid would not stop whistling, and Erin had to hold Dave back from yelling at the kid to zip it. We returned to the air strip and waited around in the departures pavilion until our plane arrived on the tiny rural runway. Our takeoff right over the ocean was the bumpiest out of all our flights ever, but we were treated to beautiful clouds and island views on our way back to Cebu. We stayed close to the airport for the night to recoup a bit before our early morning flight to Hong Kong and we enjoyed a nice clean lizard-free hotel room with room service before the next leg of our trip.
Random Observation: In the midday heat, Filipino men to do not take off their shirts to cool down. Instead, they lift their shirts up to their chest, exposing their bellies. With no shame.
Culture Shock: Most westerners probably think that roosters cockadoodledoo once in the morning to function as an alarm clock. This is not so. Roosters crow 24 hours a day, and in the early morning hours, it sounds like a cacauphany of crazed flightliess birds.
Super-humans: Dave was inspired by the super-human feats we observed. For example, our guide who grew up as a nest hunter could hike and climb dangerous descents with ease. And our canyonnering guides were completely immune to slippery surfaces.
We embarked at 4 am for an early flight to Hong Kong. Our taxi to the airport sketched out Dave as it did not have working lights or seat belts. Upon landing in Hong Kong, we immediately noticed differences in regards to ease of travel, cleanliness and comfort. We hopped on the super-efficient Airport Express train and were checked into the Intercontinental Hong Kong before 10 am. We were upgraded to a deck room and were stunned looking out across Victoria Bay at the Central Hong Kong skyline. Despite being super tired, we immediately headed out to explore the city, knowing that 48 hours would not be enough time to satisfy us. We hopped on a ferry across the bay and walked to the famous Tim Ho Wan dim sum house for brunch. This famous restaurant has a Michelin star despite each dish costing only a few dollars, so we ordered about half the menu and sampled everything - pork buns, shrimp dumplings, steamed rice dishes, radish cakes and more. We had to wait in line nearly an hour before we ate, but the food was totally worth it. Thoroughly stuffed, we decided to walk it off by finding our way to Man Mo Temple, an incense filled Cantonese house of worship filled with lanterns, gongs and golden murals.
Next, we headed to Cat Alley for shopping, and Erin picked up a lacquer engraved case. In the afternoon, we took the ferry back to our hotel and swam in the infinity pools and hot tubs overlooking the skyline. Next, we enjoyed a bottle of wine on our deck while the sun set and the nightly skyscraper light show illuminated the night sky and surface of the bay.
After sunset, we headed back out to check out the night market scene. On our way there, we enjoyed the warm night weather and neon signs in Chinese letters. Once we arrived we did souvenir shopping and Erin had her fortune told by a local palm-reader. The fortune teller told Erin that she was a stubborn but generous person who recently moved where she lives and advised her on lucky numbers, and proper directional alignment of her bed for maximum luck. We ate a late dinner sitting outside on plastic tables and chairs near the night market, feasting on classic Chinese rice and noodle dishes as well as local beer and wine. Dave noticed the table manners of the couple sitting next to us. When ready for the bill, the man simply yelled out into the air, "Mai Daan," which means get the bill. However, if you pronounce it just slightly off, it means, "get me an egg." This explaned why the waiter stared at Dave with a confused look when he tried to use the phrase to pay the bill at lunch the next day.
Random Observation: We noticed groups of women hanging out on the overpass bridge walkways all around Hong Kong. Seated on the concrete ground for hours. they were playing cards, painting each other's nails and generally just lounging. It turns out these are domestic workers from the Philippines. Most middle class families in Hong Kong employ a house woman who lives with them and cares for the children and house while the parents work. The women send money home to their families but rarely see them. On holidays, the house women have the day off and hang out together without spending money by gathering on the cool overpasses to enjoy the break.
We woke again at sunrise and admired the skyline surrounded by mountains across the bay. We decided to boat across to hike the famous Victoria Peak for morning exercise. We navigated to the base of the Peak Tram, which most people take up to the top. But we opted for the hiking challenge. Hong Kong has a rainforest-like climate, so after a few minutes we were dripping sweat. As we began to gain elevation we were treated to epic views of the city below. After a 45 minute climb up switch-backs, we realized we were on an unofficial path reserved only for residents. We hopped in an Uber and headed to a vegan smoothie spot to cool down and clean up before our next activity, a small group food tasting tour in the back alleys of Hong Kong.
We met our small group inside an unremarkable office building in the Central District. We strode next door to a basement noodle shop for excellent home made wontons. Erin put a little too much chili peppers in her soup and in a coughing fit accidentally inhaled a noodle up her nose. Despite the social faux pas, she was pleased with the resulting reduction in sinus pressure from the chili snort. Our next restaurant specialized in roasted pig, roased duck and roasted goose over rice. We filed to the back room and watched as the chef roasted a suckling pig glazed with soy sauce over a crackling fire before tasting of the delicious delicacy. Our guide claimed that many restaurants will tell people they are getting the more expensive goose when it's actually duck, and that it takes a local sometimes to tell the difference. Dave challenged our guide to a blind taste test of duck v. goose - she did not understand but he got a good laugh from the rest of our tour participants.
Next, we headed to a traditional sugar cane shop, where a hundred-year-old machine is used to grind fresh sugar cane into a refreshing juice. The shop also sells turtle jelly soup which is a cure for all ills in traditional Chinese medicine. It didn't look so appetizing. After our juices we took a long walk through an outdoor food market. Due to health and space concerns, these traditional markets will all be moving indoors in the next few years so it was priceless to see this classic way of life before it modernizes. We watched as local butchers chopped the heads off of fish and displayed their still-beating hearts as signs of freshness. We stopped at a Chinese candy shop where we learned that Chinese sweets confuse sweetness with saltiness. Erin loved the spicy candied ginger.
For our last two stops we hit another famous dim sum joint for dumplings, buns, rolls and noodles and a traditional bakery for an oven-fresh egg tart. We thanked our guide and then took a long walk along the coast toward the pier where we hopped aboard a traditional Chinese junk boat with red sails. We watched the sunset and light show from the bay and then headed back to our hotel to get cleaned up before hopping on the super efficient train to the airport. In Hong Kong, you can check your bags at the train station, so we dropped our bags and then shopped at the sprawling Hong Kong Airport complex before boarding our flight back to Frankfurt. The flight home was nearly 13 hours. Because of our long and full day touring the city, we both slept the first 10. We landed in Frankfurt and drove the two hours back to Luxembourg, where we immediately passed out for the next 14 hours.
We loved the nature and adventures in the Philippines. Compared to other destinations we've seen in SE Asia, the developing tourism infrastructure makes travel planning more difficult, and the food was not as memorable as Thailand, but the people are lovely and the nature is breathtaking. We would recommend visiting to anyone with a lot of time, patience and the ability to rough it a little bit. We are so glad we combined the trip with 48 hours in Hong Kong to experiment with the food and culture of such a unique city.
The biggest culture shock of the entire trip was returning to Europe and being met by the winter weather like a punch in the face. A general malaise hung over us along with a sense of Reverse Culture Shock at the relative safety and the boredom that goes along with it. We are back in Lux now and sad to be surrounded by grey skies and snow. Totally unsatiated, we are already dreaming up ways to spend more time in Southeast Asia.
More adventures in Southeast Asia.
Our Philippines travel video: Midnight Sun