April in The Philippines: Island Hopping Like the Swallows

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El Nido literally means “The Swallow,” in reference to the many creatures inhabiting the limestone cliffs. I read in an inflight magazine that harvesting their nests for birds nest soup is still a thriving industry. But for now, I was far more interested in the tourism side of things.

We headed out on the island hopping tour on one of those eponymous outrigger boats. The first stop was Small Lagoon, nestled within a circle of limestone cliffs. It was a popular spot…

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… especially for canoeing.

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It was accessed through a little gap in the cliffs and made for a natural sheltered swimming pool. The bottom was nothing but pure white sand and the sides of the cliffs had interesting little creatures to stare at. Freediving a few metres down, I saw a moray eel and some shyer tropical fish. In the main part of the lagoon, there were plenty of white jellyfish. These didn’t sting and it was fun holding the squidgy mass in my hands. There was also a little cave at one end of the lagoon. As I squeezed through the little entrance I saw a shaft of light lighting up the centre of the dark cave. It was beautiful.

We moved on over the clear water that ranged from deep blue to azure to green and shades of pale jade according to the depth of the water. Contrasting with the sand that was so white I had to squint at it in the sun, this was the colour sea is meant to be. I soon gave up thinking up new names for the shades of blue and sat back simply enjoying the view.

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Next up was Big Lagoon, simply a sheltered area of otherwise open sea surrounded by several limestone outcrops. It was beautiful like the rest of the lagoons in El Nido, but not particularly special as the snorkelling was marred by the dynamite holes in the coral.

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Next, we pulled up at this secluded beachlet.

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The boat was simply driven up onto the beach as the fine sand didn’t seem to be capable of doing much harm to the hull.

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Here there were many purple jellyfish, again harmless. They were quite large and often got washed up onto the beach to perish in the heat.

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While the tourists frolicked in the shallows, the boat crew busied themselves with lunch. Here they took barbecue to a fuss-free level. Back in Singapore, it normally takes at least an hour and lots of paraphernalia to get the fire started and at least another hour before there’s the hope of getting any decently cooked food at all. In El Nido, the fire was started with just a few sticks of charcoal, a dash of lighter fluid, some dry twigs taken from the beach and one match.

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Soon after the fire was started and got going, the fish was set on the grill…

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… and lunch was ready in a jiffy. I timed it: only 30 minutes! And what a delicious meal it was! Freshly grilled fish adorned with soy sauce and lime, plus cabbage salad dressed with vinegar, was such a treat on the beach.

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After lunch one of the guides took me out snorkelling. The water was amazingly clear and the coral beautiful. He brought me up to a giant white stinging jellyfish and showed me how to stroke the top without getting stung. Cute and quite fun!

Then on to Secret Lagoon, a pool of water completely surrounded by cliffs and entered by a hole at the side. It felt pretty much like a cave without a ceiling. It was quite strange that this place was dry during low tide as all the water drained out then.

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Our last stop was Seven Commandos Beach, the significance of which was lost to me. I liked the water more than the beach and ended up chatting with the boat crew most of the time there.

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They soon busied themselves with coconut leaves. Doing what, I wasn’t sure.

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But soon it was apparent. They fashioned little animals out of the coconut leaves. I got a bird…

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… a fish…

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… and a grasshopper. It was very imaginative and skillful work, fitting mementos to end the lovely day.

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April in The Philippines: Downtime in El Nido

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Morning at El Nido was a slice of tranquility compared to the hectic rush and relative bustle of Puerto Princesa. It was nice to wake up in a room of my own and not have anything in particular to do nor anywhere in particularly to go to. Except of course for a morning walk by the beach…

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… and breakfast in the company of this funny fella. According to my guesthouse owner, he bought the monkey from a rice farmer who was about to kill it. Monkeys are apparently pests in this area, especially to the padi fields in the area. All the monkey did was mooch about doing its own thing until it realised that breakfast was coming, then it screamed and got so incredibly excited about its plastic box of water and rice that it almost strangled itself  in the process. When I approached to take pictures, it was so defensive and afraid that I’d steal its breakfast that it was almost funny.

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After breakfast I went into town and wandered around. Deciding that a boat trip was in order, I headed into Art Cafe to make arrangements. If I wasn’t already convinced I was relaxing on holiday, the view from the cafe would do the trick.

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And then off on a boat it was!

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April in the Philippines: The World’s Smallest Airport

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The landing at El Nido was very smooth. The plane coasted across a strip of sea polka-dotted with giant white jellyfish, and dipped down onto a runway flanked by two low hill ranges. I should have expected it, but the sheer (lack 0f) size of the airport stunned me.

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Everything was done manually because it was so darn small, from the steps for passengers to get on and off to the baggage cart. Incidentally, I was the only one getting off the plane and I offered to carry my own bag to the arrival hall but I was waved away with cheerful grins. I then trotted off to the arrival/departure hall.

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It really was more open-air shack than airport hall. Low benches were the departure/arrival area. The check-in counter was but a rostrum with a manual weighing scale next to it. Both were covered with plastic canvas once check-in was done. It was lovely and relaxed chatting with the departing passengers, mostly western tourists. We exclaimed at how quaint and dinky the airport set up was.

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Of course this wasn’t quite the whole airport. The VIP lounge was at the back. In reality just a hammock strung between two tree trunks. Much of the time airport staff used it for their siesta.

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I gather that this here is the side gate of the airport. I don’t know where the meandering path goes to but it sure looks pretty.

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Seeing that there wasn’t a road in sight, I worriedly asked the friendly folks manning the counter how I could get to El Nido town. No problem was the answer: I’d just wait till the plane took off and then they’d open the runway gate. A trike soon came rumbling in and I was off on the next part of my journey!

April in The Philippines: My First Propeller Plane Ride

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My time in Puerto Princesa very quickly came to an end. The main problem was finding accommodation. It was impossible to find an empty bed at the time as there was a regional sports meet in addition in the city in addition to the bible dedication.  After the dedication was over, I felt that I shouldn’t overstay my welcome. After coming back from the morning at Honda Bay, I knew I had to bring my plans forward and head out of Puerto Princesa, and fast.  The next leg of the trip involved heading north to Coron to dive the famous WWII wrecks. I thought I’d splurge on a 1 hour plane ride instead of taking a bumpy and unpredictable ride that could take 24 hours via various public buses and ferries. The only problem was that the flight was leaving in two hours and I still hadn’t a ticket.

Michael took me on what was a mini version of The Amazing Race and sped me round town first looking for the travel agent and then finding that they were out on their lunch break, straight to the airport. I managed to get past airport security without a plane ticket by waving my Singapore passport at the nice guard at the door. To cut the long story short, I managed to get on the plane, but not all the way to Coron. Instead I was to stop at El Nido even though the plane was heading there and had empty seats. Why? Because there was only sufficient fuel to carry 36 kg more of payload! Dismayed that I wasn’t an anorexic teenager, I resigned myself to stopping in El Nido first. At least I made it on the plane.

When I saw the plane on the tarmac I realised why they had to be so precise in their fuel measurements. It was the smallest plane I’d ever been on!

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Of course I had to take a picture with it!

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This baby could take a grand total of 11 passengers and had no aircrew. To my great surprise, I was flying with the mayors (or some sort of official-type) of Coron and El Nido. They were very friendly and of course astonished that I would travel on my own like this.

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I wasn’t too impressed by the level of safety for the pilots here. I was seated right behind one of the pilots and throughout the flight I enjoyed the lovely view of half of the back of his head.

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This flight made me realise the sheer delight of flying. Forget jumbo liners, the scenery from lower flying propeller planes is what you want. First, you get the clouds…

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… then as the clouds clear, you see the islands. Darkest green against the deepening blue, they faded out into further distant islands fringed by pale yellow sand beaches.

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It was utterly captivating just to watch the play of colours across the landscape. For once, I put away my books and note-taking, simply sitting back to take it all in.

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It looked like one of those pictures that appear only on travel brochures.

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It was only too soon that the journey ended at the smallest airport I’ve set eyes on. More of that later, but not without first taking a picture of the cockpit…

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… and charming one of the pilots into a photo with me!

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