Saturday, February 26, 2011

San Jose, Occidental Mindoro

San Jose is a standard provincial town, with most people just passing through or using it as a gateway point to Palawan or the magnificent Apo Reef. Stick around though and you'll see, that this is the kind of place where friendship flows freely. It's also home to world class diving and an abundance of marine life. People may try and touch your skin here, but with the accompanying look of bewilderment, and eyes that know no malice - it's hard to get upset. Just smile back and drop some Tagalog, you'll be amazed at the reaction you get.

It's also one of the most romantic cities in the whole country, with waterways akin to those of Venice (if only used in the suburbs) and an annual event dedicated to love on Valentine's Day. Referred to as 'Happy Heart Day,' the town is awash with tinsel and decorations that wouldn't look out of place on a Christmas card. The central plaza is flooded by neon love hearts, while couples stand hand in hand (or cheek to cheek) and a series of events put on by the beloved town Mayor. These include a battle of the bands, synchronized break-dancing routines, comedy sketches and prizes galore.

Occidental Mindoro is a Filipino province that sees few western faces. While Oriental Mindoro offers the beaches of Sabang, naughty nightlife and a ferry to Boracay, the other side of the island remains largely untouched and authentically Filipino. It provides visitors with a chance to see the real deal, not to mention village life when peering out of the jeepney on the journey there. Villagers are very friendly too, so don't be surprised if you're invited home for a glass of Ginebra, a local hard liquor (not for the faint of heart).

In town itself there is a very reasonable beach that you're more than likely to have to yourself. Nightlife is restricted to competing karaoke bars, where you won't be so much encouraged to sing - you'll be downright forced to. At sunset, take a walk along the beach. See traditional houses on stilts, bathing in a silky orange glow that only happens for a few moments each day.  On the way you're bound to pass some children engaged in torom po (a yo-yo variant), while dozing dogs yawn happily at their surroundings. Everyone you pass is more than likely to greet you fondly, as if you were an old friend. Wear a big smile and keep an open heart. If you do, you'll never want to leave.

After nightfall, the karaoke boxes go into overdrive, but that's not where the fun ends. San Jose is a haven for live music, with restaurants such as Chowder (Rizal street, opposite Jolibee) hosting bands every night of the week. Although covers of western pop songs from yesteryear are the norm, if you're lucky enough, you might just hear some Filipino folk songs.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Sabang, Puerto Galera

It's with apprehension and fear that I walk the plank, not off the boat but instead onto it. The drawbridge connecting the pier at Batangas, to the public ferry, is nothing more than a ladder splayed on its side. Balancing both a backpack and laptop carrybag, I dread each step, but thankfully make it on board without submerging myself.

I'm greeted in Sabang by the usual throng of touts hoping to gain a hotel commission or sell a shabby shark tooth necklace. Instead I look for my own lodging and find a quaint but clean room on the waterfront for 900 PHP. More than I was planning to spend, but seeing as I caught the last ferry of the day - I have only myself to blame.

During the day, Sabang is all about scuba diving and snorkeling, with other watersports on offer such as jet skis and island hopping. At night the town comes alive with naughty nightlife. Clubs and bars are abundant, with lots of go-go girls - all glitter and grins. Hobbling after them with lust in their eyes are older gentlemen, desperately trying to reclaim their youth and former glories.

Once you've passed the city limits of Manila, everything slows down. The pace of life in Sabang is incredibly laid back, and while city dwellers may complain about a lack of activities, this is the tropics - embrace it! Just don't expect an ATM. Kick back with a good book or beer on your balcony. No matter where you are in Sabang, you're never too far from the beach. The weather is warm all year round, so it's always a good time to swim.

You can hire a motorbike for next to nothing, like 500 PHP for a full day's riding. The laws are a little lax out here too, so don't expect having no license to stop you in your tracks. There are many sights nearby that are worth exploring too, such as nearby White Beach and many splendid waterfalls.

Snorkelling is superb, with crystal clear waters meaning visibility is uninterrupted in every direction. I float alongside shimmering shoals of fish that show no fear while I remain still. The fish display the sort of colors that put the neon signs in Las Vegas to shame. I spy an eel squirming out of an underground crevice, a pulsating green from tip to tail. Some of the other marine life present include; hawksbill turtles, reef sharks, pygmy seahorses and unfortunately - lots of jellyfish. Their sting is just irritating though, leaving behind nothing but a momentary itch.

Hire some gear (don't forget fins) and you're able to do some serious exploration! Caught adrift in an ocean current for several hours is more fun than it sounds. I found myself living out a Robinson Crusoe fantasy. A small but sufficient beach, without another person in sight! Instinctively, although not hungry in the least, I began my search for coconuts, finding only debris and tin containers rusted beyond recognition along the way. I resigned myself to a little sunbaking instead. The unmistakable call of the wild welcomes me back to reality, with a monkey's screech attempting to outdo a parrot's squawk.

This is the life =) 

Monday, February 14, 2011

Manila After Dark

(The following article was published on TouristAttitude on the 13th February, click here to check it out)

It would be hard to say that Manila ever truly goes to sleep. After all, this is a city comprised of sixteen separate cities, with a greater urban area of over twenty million people. That's bigger than London or New York City. It's also a town that's very difficult to pigeon hole. If you're partying it up in Malate or Makati, you might just feel like you've popped out west again. A trip to Intramuros will make you feel like you've gone back in time to the 16th century, while a trishaw ride at breakneck speeds through the streets of Pasay will firmly plant you back in Asia.

Shopping is serious business in town, with the SM - Mall of Asia currently reigning supreme as the biggest in all of Asia. Here you can find absolutely anything you'd possibly need, as well as many items you'd never need, even if you lived to be a hundred years old. For instance, there's an entire shop devoted to Buffalo bone carvings, talk about a niche market!

Makati is a part of the city that feels very westernized, with designer shopping, fast food chains and trendy hangout spots galore. The streets and buildings are meticulously clean and kept in tip top condition by an army of street sweepers. As such, the area is frequented by westerners on vacation, as well as expats seeking a break from the encompassing madness. This is in direct contrast to areas like Pasay, a part of town where spotting white folk could almost be considered a sport!

Malate is the premier district in town for nightlife, with bars, restaurants and a staggering amount of nightclubs. Electro music is the staple sound for the Manileno youth, and expect it to be played loud and until all hours of the night. Even on weekdays. Black Dragon Pub & Disco is a nightclub that stands out for me, with friendly staff, a wide selection of drinks and the kind of sound system that will make your ears hum for days on end. It can be found in Remedios Circle, and is open late seven days a week.

Manila has a reputation for having the best nightlife in all of Asia, but don't fret if techno is not your thing - you're not alone (you're also sane). There are many live music venues in this part of town, playing a wide range of genres from western covers to Filipino folk music.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


The capital city of The Philippines, along with her residents (Manilenos), display an abundance of Latin flair. Manila is a city that was ravaged by WW2, second only in total damages to Warsaw, Poland. Looking around though, that's all in the past, as the city's many skyscrapers do so proudly exclaim. Widely considered as one of South East Asia's most cosmopolitan cities, Manila is bursting at the seams with possibilities.

The first thing most visitors will take away from it, is the unashamedly friendliness of the people. Expect big smiles, happy faces and excited waving - all from strangers. I must have been welcomed to Manila six or seven times, all within the first few hours of my arrival. This is the kind of place where a smile goes a long long way. Looking like Jesus even vaguely will get you grins and giggles galore. So don't get a haircut, don't shave and you will reap the benefits.

The streets are crowded in parts, and particularly in Pasay, the traffic is more than just daunting - it's a nightmare. Somehow though, in the midst of all this chaos and craziness, it just makes sense. If you feel the need to escape the confusion though, Rizal Park is located close by in the city centre. It's a popular picnic spot for families and lovebirds alike. There are lush green landscapes, water fountains of outrageous proportions and an abundance of outdoor aerobic classes. Don't be surprised if you get asked to join in! Why not? There are worse ways to spend your time than getting fit with gorgeous Filipino girls ;)

Near the park, you can see the shrine built for the national hero, Jose Rizal, of whom the aforementioned park was named after. Jose Rizal was among other things, a freedom fighter, scholar and renowned poet. Some of his more popular poems are on display in his shrine, which can be found in Fort Domingo, Intramuros. The site of his assassination is located in Rizal Park and flanked by armed guards 24/7.

This is the oldest part of town, with the wall that surrounds the district being built in the 16th century. Amazingly, it is still intact today, even after the battering Manila got during WW2. The area is perfect for wandering around and getting lost in. If it's too hot for such luxuries though, be sure to hail a pedi-cab. You can get a tour of all the hotspots for the bargain rate of 150 PHP, without even bargaining! Highlights include; Fort Domingo, Manila Cathedral and other historical churches. There are also a few restaurants in this part of town serving up authentic Spanish fare.

Your pedi-cab driver may have a few suggestions of his own too.
"Do you like guns, big guns?" he asks me excitedly, in an accent akin to Tony Montana.
"Sure do!" I reply, trying but failing to match his enthusiasm. All around the world - boys will be boys.
He proceeds to take me on a tour of all the guns, cannons and artillery that remain to this day. He pedals with a feverish excitement, that wasn't there only moments earlier. Clearly he is bored with churches, but the  infatuation with firepower remains.