Airplane Island Hopping
It would be great if you could go directly between these islands, but, as they say, all roads lead to Manila Domestic Terminal 4, your tiny slice of hell on earth.
Bohol’s airport had that kind of funny '10s wifi situation where there’s a bunch of networks that all say they’re free and then aren’t.
I also saw maybe my favorite piece of failed COVID bureaucratic showboating. There is a HAND SOAP IS TEMPORARILY OUT sign that seems to be a permanent installment because of its weathered lamination. And on top of this sign is a 'Rona sign insisting you (somehow) wash your hands.
Finally, since I already said I needed to stop saying bad things about Manila, I will even compliment its domestic terminal 4, AKA worst terminal on earth. They had tall cylinders which you could stand next to and eat.01 In the middle was a little lid. If you open the lid, it turns out that the whole thing, ingeniously, is one big trash can, and you can neatly slide all your garbage inside.
OK OK let’s get to the new island already.
El Nido is a little town on the long skinny island of Palawan.
Arriving provided the most striking example yet of the following phenomenon: I have no idea which places are going to be touristy until I get there. Bohol, for example, seemed to be about 50% Koreans02 and 50% domestic tourists, with a few dazed white people wandering around. Though it was decidedly touristy, it had kind of a local flavor to it. El Nido, on the other hand, was chock full of twenty-something whities.
The town is miniscule. There’s basically one street. It feels simultaneously discovered and early in development. Discovered because, well, the hoards of Eurobros and American girls screeching drunkedly into the night, the party-encouraging mega hostel, and the presence of somehow halfway decent Neapolitan pizza but complete lack of Filipino food. But still work-in-progress because the buildings all seemed to be a roll of the dice for which century they were built in. A half-finished sleek hotel is up the block from six rusty lean-tos, after which are a handful of solidly eighties plastered boxy blobs.
The other piece to set the mood is the brownouts. Brownout is the Filipino term for a blackout:03 a complete loss of power. These are frequently scheduled to reduce demand on the power grid, which can’t keep up. For example, when we were there, two of the days were without power from 6am to 6pm.
All the businesses are prepared (ish) for this, so right at six AM when the air conditioning and lights shut off, you hear the roar of a dozen04 gas generators all starting up at once. Then, at least for our ultra budget hotel, the lights come on, but not the heavy duty stuff: air conditioning or heated water. You end up reaching a lukewarm equilibrium if you end up being home at all during the day: the shower can’t get hot, but you’re so hot and sticky without AC that you don’t mind dumping cool water on yourself.
Island Hopping Some More
The main attraction of El Nido is boat trips, neatly organized into five courses (A through E). In the evening, myriad boats idle in the bay, awaiting the morning rush.
In the morning, you head to a waiting shack and make small talk (which course are you in? etc.) with fellow boatgoers. We met two very interesting half French, half Filipino young women, one of whom is a pro wrestler, and the other was between jobs but described the horror of working in a call center.05
On our boat, we stopped at many islands, all of which photograph exactly the same: great beach, Instagrammable water gradient, smattering of rocks jutting up in the distance.
Along with some interesting stops (e.g., long stretch of sand connecting two jungles), the guides spent the majority of the time pointing out large solitary buildings on remote islands and telling us how much it cost to stay there for one night. I think maybe Justin Bieber got married around here?
One of our final stops was in some cave formation we had to crawl into. The guides had done this a thousand times and so knew the best angles to take photos. I thought I was a pro at this point, so I went around by myself trying to capture the cave. I totally failed. Look at these stupid pictures.
Escaping the Heat
Lacking AC was a good forcing function to explore a bit more of the island. You can hire guys to drive you in these tin cans down the shore to some other beaches.
I haven’t gotten to a few random things about the Philippines and this is the last spot we visited so might as well drop them in here.
Final Random Things About Visiting the Philippines
Language — What people speak in The Philippines turns out to be rather complicated. English is another official language and is pretty well-spoken (e.g. taxi drivers wouldn’t speak it, but most shopkeepers would).
Malaria — Last time I was in remotely Malaria-prone regions, out of an abundance of caution (and USA people’s general paranoia), I took Malaria pills. This time, having terrible health insurance and not making much progress after a brief attempt to get pills in Korea, I just went without. We spent a lot of time trying to research this. The risk is basically nonexistent where tourists go, including Manila and Bohol. The island of Palawan does have Malaria, but it shows up further south on the island than El Nido.
Dengue — The bigger risk, actually, is Dengue fever. It’s also spread by mosquitoes. Unlike Malaria, which spreads in rural locations, Dengue is more common in urban areas, because it can be spread by a mosquito biting someone who has it, then biting you. It takes 4–7 days for symptoms to show up, and apparently it is wildly miserable (though not recurring like Malaria is). We did what we could, but strangely, the parts of the world where mosquitos are the worst seem to also be the parts that totally lack any repellant that actually does anything (e.g., DEET). Despite our best efforts (cover up, stay in at dawn and dusk), we would regularly acquire dozens of bites. The mosquitoes here are ninja-like and microscopic. We wouldn’t even feel anything until it started itching.06
Off to Singapore
After one more visit through Manila’s Satan-run Terminal #4,07 we flew to the empire of air conditioning, city-state Singapore.
I am sparing you photos of the food. I have them. ↩︎
There are direct flights between Seoul and Bohol. Who knew? ↩︎
Brownout means the voltage drops, but a blackout means the power is shutoff. Power issues used to be a regular headache for those in the Manila area too, IIRC. Since Filipinos use the term brownout for everything, it makes me wonder if the problems started as true brownouts (equipment failing to keep up, so voltage dropping and causing damage), and then when they phased in intentional blackouts to manage demand, the old term just stuck? ↩︎
No idea how many, really. Maybe five, maybe a hundred? ↩︎
The Philippines is a hub for call centers. I’ve read this chalked up to good English and a similar culture of customer service friendliness, plus their time zone making a clean handoff from the USA (it’s 12h off from NYC). ↩︎
I got enough bites that I became curious about the bump / itching and looked it up. I guess it’s just our body being annoyed about the mosquito’s saliva. ↩︎
One final jab. There is theoretically a shuttle that goes between the domestic terminal and the other ones. But it runs so rarely (like, we’d have to wait one or two hours, but there wasn’t really a schedule) that the airport staff told us to just go get a taxi. And the taxi, despite having some kind of scam-prevention infrastructure where some other guy fills out a slip of paper before you get a driver, completely tried to scam us. The old, oh we don’t need the meter, it’s a fixed price between terminals routine. Thankfully we asked the paper-writing guy before leaving what it ought to cost, so we negotiated down to a fraction of the asking price. Why is it always taxis?! ↩︎