Avoid the most popular destinations in peak season if you’re clever.
The cheeky title to this article is a not so subtle reference to an online piece that I discovered whilst researching my trip to the Philippines. That particular article was titled ’It’s the worst island I’ve ever been to’ and was in reference to Boracay, probably one of the most developed and popular tourist hotspots in Asia. So popular in fact that the Philippine authorities recently shut the whole island down to rehabilitate it from over-tourism.
Thailand authorities made a similar move recently at Maya Beach (made famous by the movie ’The Beach’). Unsustainable numbers of tourists and the waste they produce is destroying the very paradise they’re coming to see.
My initial reaction to ‘the worst island’ article was that it was the authors attempt to manufacture a viral post to boost her readership, complaining that there were so many touts and other tourists that she couldn’t actually enjoy herself.
What the hell do you expect when you choose to visit the countries most popular destination at the most popular time of year?
If you go to any of S.E. Asia’s beach resorts over the New Year period, expect to share it with half of Scandinavia, a plethora of English, Dutch and American backpackers escaping the northern winter and Australians on summer vacation.
Then to accommodate all the hungry tourists, you’ve got tuk tuk drivers and touts, guys who don’t have an education but can speak more languages than you.
They hang around trying to get their slice of the tourist dollar by offering everything from tours and dry bags to souvenirs and drugs.
It can go from mildly amusing to outright soul destroying depending on your mood and the level of hassle.
What to do about over tourism?
So the dilemma feeds itself. A particular destination becomes so popular due to its cultural significance or aesthetic beauty that it almost loses its charm due to the influx of foreign and domestic tourists. To add to the sting of inflated prices and single use plastic rubbish, every wanker with a DSLR camera or a drone is trying to get the same instagram photo that made the place look so peaceful to begin with.
But there is an alternative.If you want to immerse yourself in the culture of a place, understand what makes the people tick and be the first to uncover some little hidden gem then you need to be prepared to wing it a little, get off the well worn path, go somewhere that you didn’t see in lonely planet or on instagram and be more than an average tourist.
Palawan – The Last Frontier
When our tuk tuk driver drove us out of the airport in Puerto Princesa, Palawans major hub, my spirits lifted. Small busy streets, dimly lit alleys and brightly lit bars with loud music greeted us through the cities main intersection. The over revving bike engine wound down as our driver declared – ‘Flat tyre!’
We opted to walk and slung our backpacks over our shoulders and strolled through the humid night air until we came to a point where the traffic is diverted and only pedestrians are allowed. Bamboo huts line the street beneath a canopy of trees, tables and chairs filled with joyous locals listening to live music, eating freshly cooked seafood from the stalls and pouring San Miguel beer from tall plastic towers. There’s no more tuk tuk drivers to ask ‘Ride sir?’ and vendors smile at us as they fan the flames of their smoky grills, tempting us with an assortment of street food.
Fresh whole fish, giant prawns and squid lay glistening on packs of ice, locals sing along to videoke machines and dogs chase each other around our feet.
During the day walking around it seemed that everyone was armed with a smile. If you pass someone in the street and give them the slightest grin, they will beam a smile right back at you. If you start a conversation with someone they are happy to natter away with you all day, like they have no-where in particular to go at all.
Waiting for a taxi one morning, a chatty lady happily conversed with me for 20 minutes, telling me what I needed to see in the area, how to get there and how much it should cost. I think about 15 tuk tuks went past.
If you land in Puerto Princesa and you have the time, I’d recommend a day or two in this bustling capital to get a feel for the real Philippines before heading north.
Sabang cave tour
Now I would love to say that this particular article is indeed a fake news story and no such place really exists. Then I could keep it all to myself right?
But the photos have been posted and more and more people are discovering one of the most bio diverse islands in Asia with phenomenal seascapes and landscapes.
During our stay we hired motorbikes (most people take a guided tour) to Sebang, a couple of hours north of Puerto Princessa, which has a lovely beach as well as an 8.2km subterranean river system. At The UNESCO listed national park you will be dropped onto a remote beach and transferred to a small canoe for the 45min tour through the start of the cave. An entertaining guide paddles the canoe through the elaborate system pointing out various natural features with his headlamp as you listen to a provided audio guide.
Some might say the tour is a little primitive but I found it to be unique and informative.
Other cave systems I have visited (Phong Nha-Ke Bang in Vietnam for instance) are decked out with extensive boardwalks and are lit up like a stalactite theme park with no regard for resident flora and fauna.
It seems as if the local authorities here are keen to preserve this unique natural environment with an emphasis on sustainable development and conservation of their most valuable tourism assets.
There are numerous bays and beaches along the way such as St. Vincent and Port Barton that could easily entice you to extend your stay. The town of El Nido itself has a lively bar and restaurant scene but is suffocating under its own rapid expansion. It is the launch point for most of the tours that take in the Bacuit Archipelago.
We arrived into El Nido town after dark with no accommodation booked. A middle-aged man with a friendly smile sitting on the concrete steps of an abandoned building asked us if we were looking for somewhere to stay.
‘Follow me’ he said and headed down a small dimly lit alley. He led us up some stairs and took me over to the balcony that looked straight down over the beach.
OG’s is cheap and clean, has a restaurant downstairs and occupies the most prime position in El Nido.
Consider the fact that the power supply is highly unreliable before forking out extra money for air conditioning.
Daylight reveals spectacular karst formations directly offshore, vertical rock peeling upwards with a thin layer of emerald green vegetation clinging to the sides.
Bancas (fishing boats converted for tourism) line the beach and orange vested tourists wade waist deep to be crammed onto a tour of the crystal clear lagoons, secret caves and snorkelling beaches. Our friend who led us to the hotel last night weaves through the increasing number of arrivals onto the beach spruiking dry bags and selfie sticks.
At dinner that night we got chatting with the owner of the seafood restaurant next door who said he could organise a private tour of the islands for us for not much more than a regular tour would have been.
We spent the day either waiting for the large groups to depart or going to locations that were relatively quiet where our knowledgeable young deckhand Raymond would lead us to all the best spots.
Albert our captain had to constantly fiddle with the engine to keep it running but managed to do so in between organising a buffet lunch that included a barbequed whole fish each. We had picked up a few beers before boarding the boat but never fear getting thirsty, as ambitious locals will paddle their canoe up to your vessel with a portable array of cold drinks and snacks available for purchase.
The lagoon, beaches and snorkelling sites through this myriad of islands is nothing short of spectacular.
Many tourists come to El Nido, do a boat tour and then get out. But the northern section of Palawan Island really has a lot to offer as we discovered after a few enquiries.
Directly across from El Nido police station Joseph will hire you a scooter with an off road rear tyre for 350 pesos a day. Heading north out of El Nido we pass smiling kids in immaculate school uniforms, rice fields populated by palm trees and buffalos until we cross a bridge and turn left onto an unmarked road/track. Its muddy and difficult in spots due to recent rain but after a few kilometres we emerge onto a huge crescent shaped beach lined with coconut trees and a succession of bamboo and concrete huts.
This is Nacpan beach, the twin beach that narrows at one end where the fishing village is nestled between a bay and the front beach that overlooks a collection of islands – one of the larger ones apparently belonging to Manny Pacquiao.
Nacpan is lovely and the perfect place to chill for a couple of days or more. Rubys is an open-air restaurant on the beach with cold beers and we opted to stay at the very well run ‘Where to next’. It’s a very tidy eco- style retreat a little back from the beach with dorms and private rooms.
A walk up the beach towards the fishing village revealed a rather large building under construction, apparently Nacpans first consortium run commercial backpackers. With a location this lovely, development is inevitable.
Following the ring road that traverses the most northern part of Palawan, our next stop was Duli beach, popular for its nice surf that generally picks up in the afternoon. Front and centre on the delightful little beach is a bamboo hut that serves as the local surf lifesaving club.
Access to the small resort at one end of the beach here is by walking across about 200 metres of soft sand. As we watched a young European couple drag their hard cased luggage towards their room, we wondered what choice words the young lady was peppering her companion with. But I’m sure once they settled in it was well worth it.
The Village of Sibaltan
Continuing around the ring road to the Nth Eastern side of Palawan is where you might find paradise lost. In the little fishing village of Sibaltan there is the obligatory church and basketball court. Most of the roads are muddy dirt tracks that weave there way around bamboo huts that house men drinking and playing cards.
Bamboo fences line the streets and Bancas sit listless on the tidal mudflats. Children laugh and jump from the pier when the tide is in and stray dogs lay around without enough care to even bite their fleas.
In this part of the world seemingly untouched by the madness of modern society, men still fish daily for their dinner, families live in communal groups with only the bare essentials and everyone it appears, has enough time to chat and eat and enjoy one anothers company
Most places have no power at all during the day and after the sun goes down, communal generators supply enough light for locals to gather around a karaoke machine and squeeze out as many hits as possible before the power goes out.
In Sibaltan time is irrelevant. It seems like the waves crash slower than anywhere I’ve ever been, the sun sits still in the middle of the sky and no one is ever in a hurry.
This was evidenced when we tried to procure a boat to visit some more islands off the coast, where we’d been told exist some of the clearest waters and most pristine empty beaches in existence.
’Good idea yes come back tomorrow’ the fishermen would tell us.
So sometimes forward planning is almost impossible but a big budget is not required. What is required is a little patience and a willingness to embrace the rhythm of ‘island time’.
The quicker you do this the more enjoyable your experience of the Philippines will be. There may well be times you need to make alternative arrangements so its advisable to cheerfully surrender to destinies unpredictable hand and just go with the slow flow.
Take the path less travelled and discover a hidden gem.
A little village like Sibaltan cannot offer 5 star amenities but the locals will give you 5 star service with a smile. And you will be comforted to know that beautiful remote places do still exist in little pockets of the world.
Once considered the wild final frontier of the Philippines, Palawan is quickly developing a reputation with its blend of jaw dropping scenery amid unspoilt beaches, friendly English speaking locals and prices that embarrass more popular kingdoms close by.
Better transport possibilities, social media and ambitious local tourism operators are combining to create rapid development. There’s talk of a highway link between Puerto Princessa and El Nido, bigger airports in close proximity to El Nido and a direct ferry from Manila, the worlds most densely populated city, to San Sebastian.
But with a bit of determination and a little dose of curiosity, there’s every chance that you might find a remnant of unspoilt paradise that you may or may not want to share with everyone else.
Price Guide to the Philippines
At the time of writing
US$20.00= 1000 Pesos
US $2.00 = 100 Pesos
We travelled in October, which is considered shoulder season.
Flight from Manila to Puerto Princesa
with Cebu Airlines P3000
Tuk Tuk ride from Puerto Princessa
Airport to the city P100
Flora Villa Rosa – Puerto Princessa – P2000
OG’s Pension –El Nido town Fan room –P500
Aircon that might work – P800
Scooter hire from Jo in El Nido town -P350 day.
Private room/shared bathroom P1200
Dorm room shared bathroom P500
Bamboo hut with ocean
view @ Tapik in Sabaltan – P800
Meal @ Tapik –Chicken Adobo
(marinated chicken with rice) – P250
1 Hr Massage@ Marz , Sabaltan – P300
Bottle of 750ml Red Horse Beer – P140
Videoke – 3 Songs of your choice – P20