Perched on the southeastern edge of the Philippines archipelago is the slender, paint-brush shaped island of Palawan.
Home to natural wonders, hundreds of untouched beaches and pristine water, Palawan is yet to draw big crowds or carve a niche for itself on the tourist map. So, the advantage at the moment is that you can enjoy exclusive time gawking at the enticing vignettes of the coral-filled waters, limestone cliffs and tiny islets that you have been drooling at on postcards.
One thing that makes Palawan different from the innumerable other beach destinations in the Philippines is its variety of spectacles from south to north, and the archipelago within an archipelago.
I landed in the provincial capital of Puerto Princesa at about 8:10 p.m. and quickly found a motorized trike that took me to Bayview Backpackers in 15 minutes for 60 pesos (US$3.23). After three flights in a day (Jakarta-Kuala Lumpur-Manila-Puerto Princesa), I was tired beyond words. I showed my voucher to the guy at reception and asked him to take me to my room. I lay flat on the bed and sleep shrouded me soon.
Bayview Backpackers is an old bungalow converted to a travelers’ inn. The shared bathrooms are quite small, but 24-hour hot water is what I liked about it. The jetlag had not yet left me by the next morning, but I had to get ready for my six-hour road trip to El Nido in northern Palawan. The travel agent’s representatives looked professional enough when they came and picked me up at the appointed time of 6:45 a.m. Aside from me, there were two Filipino families also traveling to El Nido. At our one and only break at a roadside restaurant, I chose some Filipino dishes for my brunch — rice with pork adobo and pakbet vegetables. It was good food and not pricey at 150 pesos.
We got to El Nido at 12:45 p.m. and the driver had to wake me up. “Wow,” I thought, “So quickly?” No, it was the right time to reach the destination. Local transportation was no longer a problem by that point. I knew how to approach a trike fellow and felt largely at home climbing on to it and seating myself. Motorized trikes are more common than taxis in Palawan and their rides come at low prices. A trike is a common motorcycle fitted with a sidecar where two or three people can sit.
I checked into Austria’s Place ($10 per night) and straightaway went out into the scorching sun, because my time there was to be very limited. As I walked along the street, I came across a very narrow alley and through it saw a swaying dhow on turquoise water. The glimpse was a great assurance of all the pictures of El Nido I had been savoring in the previous days. It was Bacuit Bay, where all the boats for lagoon trips are anchored. The bay has some charming views of the limestone cliffs and, on its beachside, several restaurants provide lunch and dinner.
At El Nido, they offer four different tours for island-hopping – tours A, B, C and D. I chose A, which was all about lagoons and beaches. My group was comprised of seven people – a British couple, a Filipino couple settled in the US, two gentlemen from Spain and the lonely me. We cruised along at about 8:30 a.m. and made our first stop at a small lagoon around Miniloc Island. Never had I seen such green and translucent water, surrounded by giant limestone cliffs. The water is only about 2-3 meters deep and my group and several other groups started plunging in for snorkeling. Not me; I was there for fact-collection and photography.
From the lagoons we sailed toward Shimizu Island, which is usually a lunch isle. Several other groups had already started their luncheons and our crew started preparing it for us, too. Seafood, rice and tropical fruits bedecked the table. There was plenty for all of us and we took our time eating and then walking around the cliffs.
After that was the secret lagoon the crew had promised us. It was not just a secret lagoon, but also a secret beach with a secret cave-like structure beside it. You need to crawl a bit to get inside to reach the hollow cave. This place has a lot of scope for photography. The boat stops a few meters away from the sand, so you have to wade in to get in and out on the beach. The next two stops were a big lagoon and the scenic 7 Commandos Beach.
Apart from the resort on Miniloc Island, there are three small ones at the 7 Commandos. It is a perfect place to get lost and step away from stress. The ocean looks its bluest and the cliffs in the background make up a beautiful image. Bikini-clad sunbathers complement the picture with their bodies spread out on the powdery, white sand. And then it was time to go back to El Nido town.
I needed to visit Las Cabanas Beach, officially named Marimegmeg Beach, near the town before I caught my van back to Puerto Princesa. Las Cabanas Beach is only 10-12 minutes’ ride from the town. The coconut palm-fringed beach is an ideal spot to watch the sunset. I spent two full hours at the Orange Pearl Resort’s café on the beach’s southern side. There are cozy rooms available at this beachfront resort. Lucelle’s Spa and Massage (popular in El Nido) is only a kilometer away. For a normal, soft Swedish massage they charge only 400 pesos.
My van was ready at the terminal and I embarked on another six-hour ride back to Puerto Princesa. I reached Bayview Backpackers at 11:30 p.m., hit the hay quickly and woke up again at 5 a.m. before the next guy picked me up at 6 a.m. for an underground river tour. The tour group’s timing was perfect again and in an hour we reached Sabang Port where we waited for our boat to the underground river. I was with a Canadian couple and a Pinoy family who were on vacation from Laguna in the central Philippines.
The boat ride to the national park island, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, took only 25 minutes. You have to walk through the national park to get to the river. It’s only a five-minute walk in the company of some naughty monkeys. We didn’t have to wait too long to get into our dhow and in we cruised into the pitch dark of the 8.2-kilometer river. But wait, as tourists we could navigate only 4 km. Beyond that, you need special permission, which is usually only given to scientists, researchers and TV production companies. But, trust me, 4 km is more than enough to experience the imposing stalactites and stalagmites that are believed to be shaped like mythical characters and ordinary men and women.
We emerged from the cave in 25 minutes and headed to Sabang Port where Gusto Grill Bar and Resto served us lunch. Filipino food, like its variety, will charm you, entice you, tantalize you and even shock you at times. Being an archipelago, it is quite usual for a first-time tourist to expect a menu filled with seafood items. And yes, your expectations will soon turn into experiences in the restaurants and on the streets of Palawan. However, there are dishes that Palawan serves uniquely compared to other provinces.
It was my last day on Palawan. I decided to try one or two of the hall-of-fame dishes. Number one was undoubtedly tamilok. The waitress at Ugong Rock restaurant in Puerto Princesa accommodated my request and a brought out a bowl of fresh woodworms — slimy, whitish and very juicy.
“It tastes like oyster,” she informed me, watching my curious eyes. She probably saw my heart in my eyes. I quickly but apologetically indicated to her that I would settle for crocowali, deep-fried crocodile meat cut into small pieces and served with sauce. Later, I watched the waitress and her friend have a mischievous talk and smile at me from near the kitchen. I could guess what they were chatting about.Crocowali wasn’t bad; it was well prepared and dipped in the sauce, it tasted really good.
While in Palawan, I read about the legend behind the name of the tamilok dish. It goes like this: Two American tourists once spotted a tribe in Palawan eating woodworms and one of them yelled to the other, “Tommy, look”. The tribe members misinterpreted this and thought the tourists were talking about the food. Subsequently they started calling it tamilok. I am not sure how true this is, but it is definitely interesting.