It’s official- I am in love with Puerto Princesa and if it was a man not a place I would marry him immediately.
After our delayed flight from Manila finally landed, we had a lovely man waiting to pick us up to drive us on his tricycle to our accommodation. And by tricycle I don’t mean a three-wheeled bike (fuck doing that with a suitcase and two rucksacks). These are literally motorbikes with a metal side carriages around them- and they’re everywhere! No seat belts. Nothing really to hold on to. Extremely bumpy. But sooo fun. They have just as many of these as they do mopeds and it’s shocking to see that they ride around without helmets squeezing into their toddlers and dogs, some carrying three kids at once.
I have never been to Asia, or a tropical island, or anywhere without a westernised civilisation. So the last couple of days have been a real culture shock for me. Puerto Princesa is overflowing with coconut trees, mango trees, papaya trees, palm trees and other trees with leaves bigger than me. The air is humid but unlike the heavy humidity in Hong Kong, this was tropical, and a light breeze blew on us as we laughed our way down the cobbled roads. We drove past stray animals and kids playing basketball and small little shacks that were people’s houses. No one had headphones or played on phones. No one wore designer brands or make- up. Everything was stripped back and genuine and no one had anything to prove.
We made it to Bamboo nest in no time, and it was everything I wanted it to be. Usually you’re expectations are let down when it comes to accommodation, but this could not have been better. It was a small complex with a bungalow in the middle, surrounded by tree houses. Almost EVERYTHING was handcrafted out of bamboo. The walls, ceilings, floors, the chairs, stairs, the hammocks, everything down to the door handles, delicate little dream catchers and wind chimes which gave the place the perfect finishing touch. The complex was imprisoned by passion fruit trees and palm trees and guarded by goats, dogs, puppies, cats, lizards, roosters, chickens and their chicks (all of which were great alarm blocks at six AM).
Jonathan greeted us, the owner of the complex, met us and showed us around. There were a few house rules- you must walk around barefoot, you must keep the noise down a bit past 10pm, toilet roll must go in the bin provided. Jonathan sold cheap handmade bracelets (I’ve decided to get a bracelet in each country I go to), as well as a collection of organic skin products including aloe Vera moisturiser, massage oil and soaps. It was such an environmentally friendly place and we were made to feel at home.
Jonathan booked us in for whale shark watching the next day, told us about the best local restaurants and where to find them and organised our transport for our next trip to El Nido in a few days’ time- all at a cheap price.
Once again we were staying somewhere residential rather than touristy, which was amazing. We got a real taste of the Filipino culture and first hand experienced what it would be like to live here. (I’m not saying that more touristy places aren’t as good, because they are, just for different reasons).
Puerto had that same sense of community as Manila; everyone knew everyone and people spent their Friday night snuggled round tables in their porches playing cards, laughing, smoking and sharing bottles. We were stared at a again, but we realised this wasn’t in a negative way, as almost every single person smiled or waved, said hello to us or told us we were beautiful. You would never get that in the UK! Never have I ever experienced such a welcoming and friendly culture. Nor have I ever felt that interesting or special (ha- or ugly??)
The roads (I keep saying roads but there isn’t actually roads or paths, you just have to walk down the same stoney alley and hope you don’t get hit or trip over or fall down a hole) were filled with chickens, dogs, cats, goats lizards. Every house looked unique and individual, like each man had built his own house.
The local beach was beautiful. There were barely any people there with the exception of a few locals.The sand was pure white, the boats sat still and a million crabs ducked in and out of their little homes in the sand.
Jonathan looked after our stuff whilst we went to explore. He pointed us in the distance to a sand bar which you can walk out to when the tide is low. We planned to go there a couple of days after to snorkel amongst star fish and plankton.
At night we went for a meal at a place Jonathan recommended, called Daig Eko. We had cocktails, a side of homemade fries each and a main each (mine being fresh shrimp in a sweet and spicey sauce)and it cost us less than a tenner each! On the way back we stumbled up the rocky alley home; the only lights came from people’s houses or mopeds or tricycles, so it was hard to find the way.
We returned just in time to meet Jonathan’s friends and join in their jamming sesh. A couple of the guys sang and played guitar, one guy, who resembled a Rasta man with his long dreads, blue tye dye t-shirt and pipe in his pocket, played this box, Jonathan was on the bongos and me and Jenny were both given rain shakers. The residents of Puerto Princesa showed their generosity once again when they shared with us their homemade coconut wine and offered us some of their noodles. I felt like I was back at home on band practise night at my house, with my mum and stepdad and their friends jamming in the living room.
The next day was a Sunday and this is probably the only time I’ve ever gotten myself out of bed at 6am on a Sunday, but I was more than happy to do so.
After covering ourselves in suncream and mosquito spray and tiger balm, we jumped in the van that came to collect us to drive us to our boat to go swimming with whale sharks.
There boat was filled with people from all across the globe which was really nice. Some were backpackers, others on their honeymoon, others just on holiday.
As our boat set off along the turquoise clean water and started heading right far out towards the horizon, we were told to look out for groups of birds near the water; that’s where you’d usually find a whale shark. Also, that we had to head to a heavier current, as apparently that brings plankton to the top of the water which attracts the whale sharks.
We’d been on the boat for about 45 minutes before we spotted a HUGE school of dolphins not too far from us. As we headed towards them we started seeing them pop up from beside our boat. I literally screamed and shouted like a fan girl at a One direction concert.. The tour guide recorded the whole thing for me. The must have been close to 100 all together. The baby dolphins kept flipping upside down and twisting around clumsily trying to copy their mums.
After that experience, I was more content to accept if we didn’t find any whale sharks, but luckily, after about two hours of searching we saw one swim past our boat. Everyone grabbed their snorkels and sat at the side of the boat until the captain shouted go, go, go and the guides on the boat kept pointing us to where the whale sharks were. We’d get on the boat, look for more, then jump back in again. We were luckily enough to see four whale sharks that day.
At one point I had one swimming towards me, about 2 metres away before it ducked and swam beneath me. The water was crystal clear. Little fish beside the whale sharks fins followed them waiting to pick up their leftover scraps. When I dunked my head under the water for the final time, I found myself parallel to a whale shark five times my size! It was so mesmerising seeing the natural flow of nature, like being in a David Attenborough programme but better. From being above the water, with shouting and water splashing, to ducking under and everything becoming silent, it was like having a one to one moment with the whale shark. The water below was so deep you couldn’t see the bottom, they’d fade out as they disappeared below.
Lunch on boat consisted of fresh fish that had just been caught, delicious juicy fruit- watermelons and bananas and chicken for the meat eaters. Fruit over here makes fruit at home taste like a dustbin man’s fingers.
Once back at our digs, we spent the rest of our afternoon lounged out in our hammocks reading and dozing. I did some crystal healing and meditation, which made me feel even more content than what I already felt.
The following day was our last day and night in Puerto Princesa and part of me wished I was staying for longer. Some advice if you’re travelling is to avoid, where you can, booking your next lot of accommodation until the day before you plan on leaving. We already booked our next hostel because of our stresses when organising our flights a couple of days ago, but if I’d known, I’d hold off so we could spend another day here. At the same time though, you will probably fall in love with most places that you go to and you don’t want this to hold you back from trying somewhere new.
The next day, just like in Hong Kong, a thunderstorm prevented us from doing what we initially wanted to. But we weren’t complaining because it meant we could lounge around all day and do some laundry and read our books in our hammocks.
After soaking up the therapeutic feeling on lying in bed and listening to gentle rain and and angry thunder, I made myself a black coffee and sat in the lobby to have a nice chat with our lovely new American backpacker friend, Moira. She’s coming to the end of her travels, so it was interesting hearing her amazing stories and making note of her advice.
I later bought a fresh pineapple and some instant noodles (surprise, surprise) and then had a chat with Jonathan’s wife. She’s from Poland and they have an adorable new born who also lives at Bamboo nest. I thought about how weird it must be for her now living in the Philippines. She said that she loves it but struggles with the cultural differences which I can understand.
When the rain had finally stopped, we headed out to the sand bar to make the most of our last evening in Puerto Princesa. It was the heavenly image I expected it to be. It took a good 15 minute walk through rough seaweed and reeds, jumping over multiple jellyfish and avoiding black, spikey sea urchins, before we finally reached the sand bar. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. I don’t know anyway other to describe it other than a beach in a beach. Warm, shallow water suddenly turned into pure, white sand, about 200 metres into the sea. The water was so clear that you could spot starfish after starfish from metres ahead from where you were standing. Little fish swam around our ankles curiously.
Our time at the sand bar was unfortunately short lived, thanks to a group of seven- eight teenage Filipino boys that followed us out there. At first we thought they were just trying to be nice, but then they wouldn’t leave us alone. They kept getting closer and closer to us just staring at us whilst we lay half naked in the sand, obviously feeling externally uncomfortable and not knowing which way to look. No matter where we moved they just followed, so in the end we decided to go, but it was still just as amazing as it could have been without them.
We finished off the evening by drinking some rum (88p for a 375ml bottle) and playing some card games with Moira. I think in the end we ended up playing only a few games of cards, then getting into deep conversation about what a twat Donald Trump is and different cultures and travelling. It was lovely. There’s nothing better than knowing someone for such a short space of time and being able to open up to them like that.
I will 100% be coming back to Puerto Princesa and specifically to Bamboo nest. I have fallen in love with the Filipinos sedated way of life. Everything seems so much slower here, no one is in a rush, no one seems to want anymore or any less than what they already have. It’s been so liberating walking around barefoot, with no make up, with unwashed hair and not giving a flying f*ck for once in my life.
We are now in El Nido and I’m currently typing this from our hostel which is only a stones throw away from the sea. We have been here less than a day and we have already decided to might have to stay for longer than planned. I’ll be writing again in a few days!