White Beach, Boracay to Iloilo via the Antique Province
09.12.2014 - 17.12.2014 24 °C
Field marshall montgomery, Haig, Kitchener, Hitler, Stalin all had contingency plans. Churchill had contingency plans in place for a German Invasion. Any trip to Asia needs a contingency plan. As the writer Penelope Lively said "It seems to me that everything that happens to us is a disconcerting mix of choice and contingency".
The 2000 year old Banaue Rice Terraces are a National Cultural Treasure of the Philippines and are considered to be the 8th Natural Wonder of the World . Alas Ruby's action meant a booked flight from Kalibo to Manilla was cancelled. A crucial delay of 2 to 3 days would mean my time in the aformentioned world wonder would be compromised too much. Better to shelve it for another occasion when I have more time to savour it. A few hours were spent in the internet cafe considering the options. Nothing defines Palawan more than the water around it. With seascapes the equal of any in Southeast Asia, and wildlife terrestrial and aquatic, the Philippines’ most sparsely populated region is also the most beguiling. Oh bugger. Recommended by so many other fellow travellers but alas yet again not enough time left to truly do it justice. Shelve that for another trip. At last an alternative. For years this rugged province hugging Panay’s west coast has been a somewhat forgotten entity, difficult to access and even more difficult to get around because of poor infrastructure and a soaring mountain range that effectively cuts it off from the rest of Panay. But as roads improve and as nearby Boracay continues to swell in popularity, Antique (an-tee-kay) Province’s time may finally be about to arrive.
That's the place!
The Island of Panay lies next to it's much smaller cousin Boracay. On the South East of this island is the city of Iloilo which offered an alternative airport to get to Manila for my flight to Taiwan on 17th December. It is 7 hours away by road Along the Antique (pronounced Ann Tee Kay) province in one stint from the ferry port of Caticlan. With the help of Joelle I was able to devise an itinerary that broke the journey up on the way over a few days. So from Caticlan I began my journey starkly contrasting from the tourist mecca of Boracay. For several days this was an excursion in which I hardly met a fellow tourist. I felt I was back in the Bangladesh territory, travelling with the locals. As with most public transport journeys in the Philippines, it all started with the familiar bright yellow Ceres bus to my first stop Culasai. These buses appear in good condition, even of western standard, although the seats are somewhat slender. This is surprising considering that the Filipinos,, who in appearance seem crossed between Thai and Southern Americans, are certainly bigger and more portly than the average SE Asian. It was therefore a relief to jump off the bus after 2 hours since I was in danger of being involuntarily welded in the heat to my fellow my fellow passenger on the conjoined seat.
In any other setting Culasi would be an insignificant little town with a bland but brilliantly white washed town square. A small little fishing village with hardly any tourist infrastructure. So nobody selling sunglasses, no beach bar, no restaurants. Only little cafes selling local fare. No beach music. Not even Bob Marley suggesting "Let's get together and feel all right (like me on the bus)". "Why the hell am I here?" I asked myself as the bus spun off into the horizon, no doubt vacating my one seat to a family of six. Well the journey here was a clue. Having been to the Philippines before I must declare that the region has some of the most stunning scenery that I had seen. From the bus the rugged coast was on one side, and on the other side paddy fields and souring 2000m peaks that form a spine through the region. As John Lennon sang "There's nowhere you can go that isn't where you're meant to be".
The suggestion of Antique came with a hotel recommendation, which I followed, for a guest house Anna, named after the proprietor's grand daughter. Dodging some extensive painting of the property, I opted for a clean 2nd floor room with a tremendous panoramic view of the mountains and the cultivated fields below. The water supply was a bit touch and go. I was however provided with an impressive 360 degree sunset from my room.
Two nights in Culasi were bookended the next day's trip to Mararison island. The only way to get here was to charter a small boat for the 15 minute journey. Undiscovered paradise! One tiny community shop. No restaurants or hotels, no real roads. Just a 2 mile or so long slice of golden sand paradise topped with a little hill, fit for climbing to marvel at its view. I followed advice of the guest house and brought food with me, a large feast from the market. The whole afternoon was spent swimming and just enjoying peace, tranquillity, and vendor free bliss. The luxury of nature is the only luxury so said some famous Chinese philosopher. Probably. Paradise however was rocked the previous year when it was largely evacuated during another typhoon. The numerous new builds it transpires were reminders of the devastation. Reflecting on the resilience of the nation, I did take a break from the sea and sat on a communal, shaded bench. I was then musically accosted by a growing crowd of school kids between the ages of 4 and 14. In a moment of pure sponteneity they started to sing (very well )to me a series of philipino and western songs . My personal concert seemed to last 30 minutes or in my memory much much longer.
After Culasi it was a mere 1 hour to Tibiao. I arrived in what appeared to be an identical town square although this town was more bustling,. There was a sizeable market, a few more eateries and even a small cafe that was open 24 hours and sold a decent coffee. A guest house had been recommended again./ Just as well because accommodation was apparently scarce. I asked a local and he took me to the very place. Everyone seemed to know it. A large ancestral home (and guest house) stood next to a doctors surgery. The current owners had lived in America for 30 + years. Now really at retirement age they set up a doctors surgery to serve the local community. I arrived in this lovely home and was the only guest at the time. The running of the place was divested to the very helpful Edmund who cooked a delicious breakfast for me. Whilst watching the TV one evening, he pointed to an American/filipino presenter who had stayed at the guest house. The next day I followed the footsteps of this presenter and I visited the spectacular jungle set Bugtong Bato Falls. Oh I also gave some fish an all you can chew dead foot skin buffet at a fish massage place. Hopefully no food poisoning. I hope they had strong constitutions! The remainder of the time was spent on a stony but beautiful beach with an impressive mountain backdrop. After sharing the beach with half of Asia in Boracay, only a few hours away I felt that this was my beach. After reading and swimming I was only disturbed by the occasional fisherman and rumble in my stomach telling me it was time to eat.
It was time to drag myself away back towards city life and make my way to Iloilo (pronounced Ee low ee low - like an old style greeting from a policeman). Breaking the journey up visiting a famous UNESCO endorsed Spanish colonial church in Magao, I arrived in a large, scruffy student city. Back to civilisation. Not exactly an obvious tourist destination but it was lively and brimming with a seasonal atmosphere. This is the first time that I sensed that Christmas was round the corner. The shops were in full swing, the streets seemed to have a pre Christmas festival air as many were closed for the odd seasonal procession. So this is emphatically Christmas although in the 27 degree heat. In keeping with the city itself, my guest house for 3 days was bedraggled and neglected to say the least. Nevertheless I did get a warm reception and there seemed to be a decent bit of live music every night. The town itself was crammed full of decent eateries with some very good fish food and street food. It is a good base for a day trip to another island. This was the tropical island of Guimaras. I took the trip, visiting a huge mango orchard then settled down on a beach, again just patronised by Philipinos splashing around and sipping the odd rum.
I took an afternoon flight to Manila from Iolio. Not my favourite city although it does have one or two points of interest. I only had ;just over 24 hours there . I had been before and was immediately reminded of the appalling traffic. Getting a taxi from the airport was like paying money to sit and chat with a driver in the car park. 4 miles took 50 minutes. I was glad to dump my stuff and explore. This was my one night in a dorm room (an acceptable but soulless YHA). I stayed in a region next to an endless market with endless eating options. The next day to avoid the traffic I adopted to walk everywhere including to Manila Bay. On route I saw the famous white elephant (or Millenium dome) of its day, the Coconut palace. Apparently Imelda Marcos spent $17 million dollars on this to entertain the pope whom she thought would visit. He was apparently appalled at this gross extravagance and wisely decided not to visit. He made the right choice although he did miss out on this marvellously laid back country. His Holiness could have perhaps, taken off his shoes and socks and topped up his tan on a beach, perhaps sipping his Tanduay (rum) and coke. If there is one piece of advice in the Philippines just relax and kick off your shoes. Imelda why did you need so many though?