Palawan (pa-Low-an) Island or (our translation) Land of big smiles.
Lacy: I’m editing this post while laying in a hammock on the beach, drinking coffee and waiting for my normal coffee emoji text from Rob that means he is waking up. No matter where we are in the world, I nearly always start Rob’s morning with coffee in bed. The constant sound of waves and kiss of sea breeze on my skin have become my new normal. Today I look out on the South China Sea as we are on the western side of the island. Palawan divides this and the Sulu Sea on the eastern coast. We have been bouncing back and forth between coasts as the main road that runs south to north and circumvents the jungle mountains gives you great exposure to both areas. Life is good.
After three + weeks in Siem Reap, Cambodia we finally decided on where to head next. I was itching for beautiful beaches, palm trees and snorkeling and Rob wasn’t saying no. Thailand was originally on our list, but after looking into it a little more it seemed more touristy than we want at the moment. Northern Vietnam remains high on our list, but with the recent coronavirus quarantine of a village near the Chinese border we put that on hold until later in the trip…hopefully. A lady staying at the same hotel as ourselves in Siem Reap mentioned that the Philippines has some of her favorite beaches ever. That was enough for us to do some research and after surmising that it didn’t seem overly touristy we booked one way flights to Palawan island.
Before departing Cambodia I was able to celebrate my Yoga Teacher Training with my amazing teachers and fellow classmates. It was such a special experience that I will hold with me forever. I am using my newfound knowledge and skills for my daily self practice on the beaches and in the jungle gardens of Palawan.
This island had me smiling from the moment we stepped off the plane and onto the tarmac as the sun was rising and illuminating a lush tropical paradise before us. We did very little research before arriving to the Philippines, which is pretty typical of our travel style. I like figuring things out as we go and being surprised. Our first few days here were no different. The only planning we did was determining the best place from which to rent a larger motorcycle. We didn’t even book a hotel for the first night. We arrived at 6am so we figured we would immediately go to a coffee shop and after seeing the vibe in Puerto Princesa, the gateway to the rest of the island with a major airport and harbor, we would decide if we wanted to stay there or hop on the bike and travel further north. In our experience, port towns aren’t always the nicest. Glad we waited to decide because Puerto Princesa was a complete surprise in how clean and welcoming an area it is. We have been in the Philippines 4 days now and you would be hard pressed to find any littler on the road, sidewalk, waterways or anywhere on this island. This is nothing short of shocking to us because Asia is not typically known for its well maintained trash infrastructure. That and the more recent introduction of disposable plastic products to these locations usually result in the constant presence of trash. How could this be? I asked myself this question and upon a little research learned that as early as in the 70’s there was a big environmental initiative put forth by the government. A list was published of the cleanest islands in the Philippines and the locals felt a certain prestige to be on it. Palawan island has been known for being one of the cleanest and safest islands in the country for quite some time. Additionally, they have a reputation as being the most friendly to tourists. People here are incredibly kind and welcoming, with nearly everyone speaking English with an American accent. All this combined with well paved roads has made our first few days a breeze and notably one of the easier places we have ever traveled in SE Asia. I am quickly falling in love with the Philippines.
Our first day here had a few hiccups, but they were completely self-inflicted and the island vibes had already permeated through our Cambodia-toughened skin making us much more laissez faire about losing both my phone and the motorcycle key. Well…at least thinking we had lost both. From the airport, we took a tricycle ride (this is a motorbike with a sidecar and a roof that is the equivalent of a local taxi) to a coffee shop where I immediately thought I had left my phone in the tricycle taxi. What I didn’t realize was that I had stuck it in an infrequently used pocket of my backpack that I only realized an hour or so later when I put my pack on to leave the shop. Rob was surprised at how little I seemed to care about losing my phone. These days everything is backed up to some cloud-like storage so the only thing that would have been lost was the device itself and I could buy another one here at the mall. I wasn’t ready to let a lost phone get me down. Fortunately for me, it wasn’t lost! I’ll let Rob tell a similar story of an infrequently used pocket that thwarted him!
From the coffee shop we walked across the street, picked up our new wheels and set off for our freshly booked guest house. Keep in mind it’s still only 8:30 in the morning so we could only drop our bags off. The all night flights were beginning to catch up with us so after lightening our load we went to the closest beach, had breakfast and found 2 lounge chairs in the shade where we relaxed and let the incoming tide lull us into some much needed naps. The shores here are lined with towering coconut palms, sprawling mangrove and blue sand crabs that we have never seen before here. We are really beginning to love the island at this point as the pace and scenery was a welcome change from the hustle and bustle of Siem Reap.
We opted to stay a second night in Puerto Princesa so that we could ride out to Nagtabon Beach without packing up the bike and have a relaxed day on the sea. It was PERFECT! The beach was beautiful with just a few people enjoying its waves. The local beach shack served up great barbecue (rice, veggies and eggs for me. I haven’t had any meat in a month and really not missing it) and played fun Spanish and Pinoy (Filipino) music that complemented the sound of the surf. We stayed from lunch until sunset, fully enjoying having absolutely nowhere to be and nothing to do except make an 8pm dinner reservation at what we heard was the best place in town. I took a walk down the beach and when I returned to Rob I said, “If I could do a cartwheel now I would!!” That really sums up how I felt at the moment. Total peace and happiness. And it has lasted throughout the week. 🥰
I feel like we should mention the coronavirus and it’s impact on travel through Asia. It’s effects were palpable in Siem Reap. Asian countries rely tremendously on Chinese tourism and when the entire country is not traveling the trickle down effect is huge. There are tour companies and hotels that cater only to the Chinese tour groups. Some of these hotels had already permanently closed by the time we left because they couldn’t afford to stay open without guests. Other hotels catering to non-Chinese tourists had dropped their prices significantly just to attract guests and the streets were oddly quiet for high season. The hotel where I did my training felt it just like everywhere else as they experienced many cancellations from people who all over the world don’t want to travel right now. Filipino locals are telling us the same. This is their high season too as it’s the drier and cooler season, meaning they too would have a mass of Chinese, Korean and international tourists. Their absence reduced their tourism by nearly 25%. nationwide. That’s a big hit for people who really depend on the tourism economy at this time of year for their livelihood.
Rob: Freedom to get off the tourist track, or to just own our schedule, as we see it, means getting a motorcycle. We are traveling this year with trimmed down packs, but still have about 35 pounds of gear between 2 backpacks and 2 yoga mats. We are just able to squeeze it all onto the back-rack of our little Honda XR 125 Enduro motorcycle. We have a little bamboo added to the stock rack for stability. It’s not a lot of horsepower, but so far so good as it is getting us from beach to beach AOK.
Riding in the Philippines is another chapter in my how-to guide of taking a motorcycle around Asia. A lot is the same as other countries with the local added feature of overly-polite-yielding that constantly happens. If someone is slowing down in front of you, it means you should as well because either a car is backing out into traffic, a bus is hurtling toward an intersection a little too fast or a Tricycle or Jeepney (more on these later) is starting to make some sort of U turn. Could even be a pregnant dog waddling across the road. All of these things are totally fair, legal and above the yield demarcation line for a motorcycle, so it would be your fault if you hit them or let them hit you! Traffic in the city center is a headache like most Asian cities and the fastest way from A to B may include cutting a few corners, hopping a curb or two and a short trip down a sidewalk. The presence of concrete roads, so far, has been a huge surprise. Outside the city, we find ourselves on very well built roads and winding along mountain roads in between beach towns. We are totally in our happy place. Like the balance of Asia we keep a sharp eye out for monkeys, children and goats, but dogs are really to be watched out for here as their favorite place to sleep, sniff and play is the middle of any road.
Fully loaded we have a top speed of 80 kph , but the engine seems happier going 70-75 kph. It struggles up some hills and I keep reaching for 1 more gear or a few more hp over the 12 it comes with, but it’s relatively new and in good condition thanks to the Father & Sons team at Palawan Peter’s rental shop. <— Non paid endorsement.
Puerto Princesa is mostly supposed to be a gateway town, but we enjoyed 2 days and nights there doing a little shopping, testing out some restaurants and getting our bearings of the town and local beaches. I think I’ll be eating a lot of seafood and Piggies in the Philippines. One dish stood out that was a fruit / tuna poke’ bowl and had the craziest, tastiest seaweed in it.
Day one in town I lost the motorbike key. Maybe it was the least aggregious thing I could have done because the guys back at the shop took it in stride and were very helpful to get me a spare. As it turns out, my shorts have a little secret pocket that was a little more secret than it needed to be and I “found” the key exactly where I put it, albeit 2 days later. Picture Lacy and Gizzie eye rolling me. 😬