The Philippines has world class oceanic eco-tourism with 100% visibility sea-water--great chicken and fish--rock and roll music-- flamboyant gay movie stars--105 degree weather--hotels cost 40$ USD--there's almost no beach--service is painstakingly slow--locals speak English, but it can be difficult to get directions or advise--there's not a lot of nightlife--the standard of living is apocalyptic.
BORACAY: Manila is hot and chaotic--people work a lot--there are traffic jams and “people jams.” There’s really no over-the-top party--unless locals wait for a major concert like the New Years Eve Count Down or, “Swedish House Mafia,” who played Manila, 1/17/13.
Boracay is the total opposite--the beach is pristine--it can be explored on foot and there is partying 365 days a year. At first glance, it’s a white sand beach with a calm sea that ranges in color from topaz to emerald--by nightfall, it seems like a major hook-up scene--with discos, live music and fire jugglers. By morning, families take over the beach and after a few days it boils down to a lively place to get some exercise--to stretch, swim and do some serious hiking back and forth--it’s too long--about 1 hour to walk its full length--the beach is topless-optional. Sections of the sand are sometimes eroded by a nasty colony of green algae.
PLAWAN: Palawan is an arboriculturist’s dream--a mixture of semi-temperate rainforest and jungle trees that never repeat. The entry point by plane, Porta Princessa, has a tiki-bar, shopping mall and a gourmet sea food restaurant called Badjao Waterfront. The butterfly and crocodile farms are 45 minutes from town and only take about 15 minutes, each, to explore.
We skipped the 6 hour trek to El Nido on the North shore of Palawan Island and opted for the Underground River on the West side, in Sabang. It’s an easy 4 hour bus ride past massive walls of jagged granite--rooms are hard to find, but the food and surf are both good and the underground-river-cave-boat-ride is easy. Reservations for the cave are a little sketchy and not cheep, but are convenient enough if done a day in advance. The zip-line is fun, with a beautiful beach and giant monkeys.
BOHOL: Bohol is smaller, sometimes cheeper and less stressful than other islands in the Philippines. On weekends, the 6:30 pm speed ferry arrives in Tagbalaran while a rock concert is in full swing. The Tarsier Sanctuary is awesome. The kids who showed us the mini-monkeys advised, “Don’t touch them. If they get stressed out, they’ll commit suicide.” Chocolate Hills and the Balicasag Fish Sanctuary at Alona Beach are both gorgeous.
BANTAYAN, MALIPASCUA & KALANGAMAN: East of Baracay is a stretch of sea that spans from the Northern tip of Cebu Island to the Pacific rim city of Palompone--it more or less encompasses the expert level scuba-diving and world class oceanic eco-tourism in the Philippines. The region is difficult to access because the bus ride from Cebu City, North, to the Malapascua Island dive spot is uncomfortably long. An easier, but more elaborate route--is to fly from Manila, or rent a private room on an overnight boat from Cebu to Palompone--then plan an early boat ride to Kalangaman--an expensive camp site on a remote islet with a 400 meter, white, crushed seashell sandbar. From there, hitch a ride on one of the boats to Malapascua--a mini-Borakay for scuba-divers. From Malapascua, bags have to be carried through town to a dingy where they're rowed out to a ferry that takes travelers to a point in Northern Cebu--a motorcycle taxi can then be used for the hour ride to another ferry that cuts across to the beautiful blue water of Yuneek Beach in Santa Fe on Bantayan Island.
Cebu City has a designated area for partying called Mango Square--about the size of a tennis court--it surprisingly doesn't get over crowded and has a good disco. Cebu bartenders are better than anywhere else in the country.
BAGUIO, BANAUE & SAGADA: It's obviously the most enjoyable adventure on the main island of Luzon. The trip is best done on the roof of a (mini-bus) jeepnie because of the 360 panorama view of sheer jungle cliffs, massive rice terraces and waterfalls. Banaue is a lovely mountain town, full of cute kids and surrounded by massive, 2000 year old, emerald green rice terraces.
Sagada is another mountain town--long and slender, somber and quieter than Banaue, but has the best hash in Asia--sold by a cliquey group of young people who have full reign over the town--Guides lead unaware European tourists through a 3 hour, life-threatening, pitch black cave full of bats.
The bus ride from Sagada to Baguio is all day--with views of 1,000 meter, shear, jungle mountain sides, topped by a pine ridge, silhouetted against a violet sunset. The city of Baguio has strawberry fields, hot sprigs, a shopping mall with a massive look-out and a designated courtyard for alcohol about half the size of a soccer field. The nearby coastal town of San Fernando City isn’t distinctively different from other small cities in the region, but in certain areas along its coast it has waves. San Juan is a good beach--about 2 football fields long, with a point break and beach break--hotel rooms are $20 per night.
CLOUD 9: A remote, deserted ghost town with dirt roads, flash floods, mosquitos, slow service, expensive prices, two inch deep water and razor sharp coral--Or--epic neon-blue barrels to surf with bottle-glass-green water, 100% water visibility, zero air pollution, pro-gromet-surfers, lush, undisturbed jungle and awesome piers to walk out on to watch the orange sunset.
The location is ridiculously far--we flew to the wrong city with almost the same name, Surigao--Cloud 9 is on Siargao (pronounced sure-gow). We stayed in the heart of Surigao--a city with no movie theater, for less than 10$ USD. Then, for 5$ USD we took a boat all day to Siargao--there are two ports near the surf--Carman and Dapa--Dapa is an hour closer. The only way to get to the surf was via motorcycle--the driver, two of us plus two bags on one bike for more than an hour.
ANGELES CITY: The most unexpected treasure at the start of my trip in the Philippines was Angeles City--described on the internet as a hedonistic trash heap--it’s actually one of the best and smallest red light districts anywhere--with as many beautiful women as a university campus. The place is plagued by 60 year old European men who wear tank tops, flip flops and ride scooters.
HONG KONG: Hong Kong is a perfect point of entry into South East Asia with a few exceptions. As far as shoe string budget travel is concerned--the city has 75 Prada, Armani and Bvlgari stores, each--not to mention a massive Apple Store that floats above the street like its own island. My hostleworld.com reservations inside Chung King Mansion were totally screwed up--it was a miracle I had a place to stay for less than 50$ USD.
The city is designed like a massive, futuristic shopping mall with underground and above ground hallways lined with stores as an alternative to sidewalks. It has a nice statue of Bruce Lee, a museum with a few cool, ancient Chinese illustrations, an antique tram that almost climbs vertical and 90’s-throwback-drum-and-bass parties. Hong Kong has the same weather as Miami--so it’s safe to say any location to the South is going to hit temperatures of 100+.