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Posts Tagged ‘Bohol’

All along the strip of shops and bars on Alona beach, but mostly at the junction of the road inland, were men with laminated sheets bearing photos of the two tours that everyone seemed to operate. They’d ask you if you were interested in a boat tour, and if you said no, they’d flip their card and ask you if you wanted the inland tour of Bohol.

On our way back from the beach one afternoon after we’d done the Chocolate Hills, tarsier sanctuary etc on the mainland Habiba and I took up one offer. The guy showed us his laminated flyer and explained that there were four things on the tour, dolphin- and whale-spotting, snorkelling, lunch on one island and a visit to a ‘virgin island’. He asked for 1,800 pesos, but I offered him 1,500 (about £21) and he accepted that readily enough.

Unlike our Bohol tour it was just going to be the two of us – except that, when we found the man again at dawn the following morning, there was another person joining us on our boat – a Filipino tourist and relative of either our guide or the boat’s pilot.

As the sun rose over the sea, our narrow boat, slender outriggers like spider legs to either side, chugged out into open water. Along with several other boats carrying tourists doing exactly the same thing.

The first thing on the itinerary was the dolphin and whale spotting. We spotted lots of the outrigger boats, but not so much in the way of sea-going mammals. There were a few black specks to be seen in the distant water every now and then, but it was a case of blink and you missed them. The guide explained good-humouredly that the dolphins were scared of all the boats in the water.

After another journey across the water we arrived at a small island – Balicasag, I believe – with a broad coral shelf stretching a hundred metres from the beach until dropping off sharply. We landed on the beach and rented flippers for an extortionate 300 pesos each or something. Then a lad rowed us out to the edge of the coral where we went snorkelling (we’d brought our borrowed goggles and snorkels with us). The other tourist in our boat gave us some small bread rolls with some sort of pink filling to feed to the fish.

Once we got into the water and opened up the plastic bag of bread we were swarmed by plenty of small tropical fish who would dart in to snatch bites of the bread in your fingers. And then a much larger fish would swoop by and grab the whole piece.

The drop-off at the edge of the coral was quite impressive. Below you, the coral would simply end and beyond was the rich, deep tourquoise of the empty sea.

After maybe an hour enjoying this experience, exploring the coral, watching tiny fish go about their lives and trying diving down in the deeper water, it was time to leave. Back in the outrigger boat, the guide said something to us about visiting another island tomorrow, but we said we weren’t interested.

And then we were back at Alona beach and confused. What happened to the rest of the tour, the lunch island (which, to be fair, we’d also said we weren’t interested in) and the virgin island. Maybe that was part of the proposed tour the next day. Anyway, we paid up feeling short-changed, but still happy about the snorkelling experience.

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As I mentioned, we shared the ride from the ferry terminal in Tubigon to Alona Beach with a couple of young women who resided in Hong Kong, Ivy and Mara. We made arrangements with them to take a car tour of various place of interest in Bohol. Bohol is a smallish island province a little to the south of Cebu; our base at Alona was on a smaller island off the south-west corner of Bohol, near the only city, Tagbilaran. Panglao is separated from Bohol by a matter of a few score metres – there are two modest bridges linking both land masses.

We were picked up around nine o’clock on our first morning in Alona in a dark red people carrier and then driven the half-hour or so back across Panglao and on to the mainland. The weather was hot, the skies clear, the sun shining, and we were happy to enjoy the car’s air conditioning.

Our first stop was on the coast road near Tagbilaran – a statue commemorating the Sandugo or blood compact between the Spanish explorers and the native Filipinos in the 16th century. We stopped to take a few photos and then moved on.

Next stop was one of the oldest churches in the Philippines – Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Baclayon. This building reminded me a lot of the Basilica of the Bom Jesus in Old Goa in India – especially Swiss-cheese-like rock out of which it was built. There were worshippers inside, but it wasn’t clear if it was a mass or other ceremony, or people were just hanging out, but it seemed quite informal. Loud music pounded out of a pavilion on a green next door. Habiba was given a shawl to put over her immodestly naked shoulders. We stopped to take a few photos and then moved on.

The church was also on the coast, but our next port of call took us into the jungly interior of the island. Bohol is particularly famous for two things – and we saw both that day, the first being tarsiers. A tarsier is a small nocturnal primate. Its body is a little larger than a clenched fist, and it has a long, rat-like tail. It has huge eyes – fifty times bigger than a human’s compared to its body size – and long-fingered, knuckly paws with pads like a frog or a gecko.

There is a ‘good’ tarsier sanctuary on the island, according to our borrowed Lonely Planet, but I don think the one we visited was it. The tarsier zoo we went to was a large hut on the side of the road, surrounded by fields and forest. The tarsiers were kept in bushes in raised beds in the middle of the hut, and visitors were able to view them from every side. The boys who worked there answered the women’s questions about the tarsiers and we spent a fair amount of time photographing the little creatures.

Apart from being disturbed during their natural sleeping time by gawking foreigners, the tarsiers seemed fairly healthy. The young men working there encouraged us to get up close to photograph the tarsiers, but there were signs up forbidding touching them. The combined facts that we weren’t at the ‘good’ sanctuary, that there probably loads of these places scattered across the island, all probably getting their animals directly from the wild, and that characteristic ‘so cute!’ reaction of the women depressed me a little (especially as I know how much Habiba dislikes zoos).

I went outside to take some pictures of the fields. The sky had started to cloud up and the fields were of the watery variety, so there was a dramatic sky made doubly dramatic by its reflection in the paddy fields below.

Next on the itinerary was lunch, and lunch was to be partaken of on a boat on the Loboc River. We were taken to the boarding place by our driver (a Filipino called Paul) where there were lots of people waiting to board several of these boats. Each boat was an alarming construction – the buffet hall was maybe five by eight metres and sat on two boat hulls; this was powered by a separate boat connected to the main bulk at the stern. The buffet was mediocre – and made more so by the guitarist singing an endless stream of standards and making them all sound the same.

The river cruise took us along the brown river between jungle-shrouded banks. At the far end of the upstream, we stopped for two purposes: the end of the navigable watercourse where a few small waterfalls fed the river, and to stop at a large hut on stilts over the water where a troupe of Filipinos in matching pink and white outfits sang and danced for us for ten minutes. While we were there, the heavens opened and tropical deluge fell; fortunately, it eased off a lot as we puttered back downstream.

By the time we reached our next stop, the rain had pretty much ceased completely, although the sky remained cloudy. The next stop in question was Bohol’s other main attraction – the Chocolate Hills. These are distinctively regular and discrete conical hills that were formed by the upraising and partial erosion of a coral reef in the distant past. They’re called Chocolate because in summer the heat and dryness causes their grass skins to turn a sere brown. They were quite green when we visited.

There appears to be one hill that is set aside for tourists, with a visitor’s centre and shops and stalls clinging to one side. From there, you get a good view of dozens of other apparently untrammelled hills poking out of the jungle in most directions. The hills were actually steaming in the heat and wetness.

Our final stop on the tour was a butterfly sanctuary. This was a much nicer, more professional place than the tarsier place (and who cares about the feelings of invertebrates, anyway?), with a little museum/information area, a café and a garden. A lad took the four of use round the premises, explaining pretty much all the stuff I learned in primary school about butterflies. One display held examples of something I didn’t know about – the fact that butterflies have pronounced sexual dimorphism, and some rare butterflies are gynandromorphous – literally half male, half female. The young guy told us that all but one of the nine on display were fake (and you can’t help but have your doubts about that one).

We were encouraged to touch caterpillars and chrysalises, and then we entered a netted-off area where various live, adult butterflies and moths hung and fluttered. Most impressively, there was an Atlas moth clinging to one post of an arbor. Its furry antennae were like feathers and its thick, furry legs were reminiscent of a tarantula’s.

And then it was time to drive back to Alona Beach – and still have time to spend a while on the beach before a peachy golden sunset. The tour cost 2,000 pesos for the car (lunch and some entrance fees were not included), which worked out to about £7.25 each for the four of us.

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Habiba and I have been back in Korea for a couple of days now. I’ve just finished uploading photographs and videos from the trip, but, while we were away, I had very little time for blogging, so now I want to write about our travels.

As you’ll appreciate, it’s winter here in Korea, so it’s pretty chilly. We planned to head off to the airport immediately after Habiba finished work on Friday the 24th of December, catching an express bus to the airport. I carried both our large backpacks and my small one to the bus stop and bought a couple of tickets. Habiba turned up after six o’clock and we waited. And continued to wait. It was rush hour, so eventually, as Habiba lost the feeling in her extremities, to take a taxi. The ride took a long while, creeping along the expressway while we anxiously eyed the driver’s navigation display and its ETA. The nearly two-hour ride cost about ₩60,000 – about £34.

The nighttime flight out was fine – I read Moby-Dick most of the way. Once at Cebu Airport, arriving in the early hours of the morning, we had nothing to do but wait for morning and for the first ferries to run. There wasn’t even any where to buy water, as far as we could tell.

Our plan was to take a ferry from Cebu to Tabilaran, the capital of Bohol, an island province immediately to the south of Cebu. From there, we intended to take a bus or taxi from the city on the south-west corner of Bohol to the nearby island of Panglao, specifically a beach on the southern side of the smaller island called Alona Beach.

We took a taxi to the ferry terminal – Pier 1, I think – and tried to buy a ticket for the early ferry at six o’clock. The terminal was a pretty run-down, dirty place, populated with various tired Filipinos and foreigners. We asked a man at the terminal fee desk where we could buy a ticket and his response was a vague, Over there. We didn’t really know what to do, but I overheard some other travellers talking about tickets that they’d bought. With their help, I figured out that there was no 6 am ferry, it being Christmas Day, but we could take a 7:30 ferry to a different place and take a bus from there to our destination.

I queued up and bought us a pair of tickets, and some water, and, as I headed back to Habiba, was button-holed by a couple of young women who asked to tag along with us. After more uncertainty over where to go we squeezed through the crowd waiting to board and got on a small orange speed ferry. The trip to Tubigon took an hour or so, during which time I heard the first of three renditions of Bryan May’s ‘Too Much Love Will Kill You’ that day, and also got my first sleep of the day.

Habiba and I and our fellow travellers, Ivy (a Singaporean living in Hong Kong) and Mara (a Romanian also working in Hong Kong) hired a man with a minivan to take us to Alona. However, we needed the bathroom before we went anywhere and Habiba spent a while changing into more summery clothes – which made the guy frantic to get us on board. Once we did and got underway, Ivy realised she’d dropped her wallet somewhere. After heading back to the ferry terminal and looking for it, she concluded it was lost. One of the other people in the van said she worked for a radio station and would put out an announcement about it, although nothing came of that as far as I know.

The drive to Alona was another hour or more. We entered our hotel, the Citadel Alona Inn, a fairly modest but nice place, and left our bags in their small, empty bar. We couldn’t check in for another hour or two, so we had breakfast and walked down to the beach.

Alona Beach was a fairly narrow strip of sand about 500 metres long backed by a dense row of mainly bars and restaurants and a few shops. Our hotel was a five-minute or so walk from there, along a dirty, uneven road that was home to more shops, eateries and hotels. Many of these places were run by ex-pats – the resorts seemed to be especially popular with Germans; there was a Helmut’s Place, for example.

Although our hotel served food, on the evidence of our one and only meal there, it wasn’t terribly good. Apart from that, and the diminutive dimensions of our room and double bed, the Citadel Alona was a good place to stay. It was clean and attractive, and – very importantly – provided free drinking water. There was no hot water in the taps, though – so all showers were cold. That’s not too bad in a tropical climate, but I think showers, like tea and coffee, should be hot.

Just across the road from our hotel was another one called ChARTs, which had a restaurant called the Art Café. This was a very nicely designed place, all artfully moulded stucco walls, and – surprisingly enough – lots of artwork. This place became our favoured location for breakfast and coffee, lunch, too, sometimes.

Another nice thing about the Art Café was that the staff were friendly and attentive – but not too attentive. Many of the other places we ate and drank at were quite relaxed – to the point of being difficult to get served or pay your bill at. Our main hangout at the beach was like that. At Oops Bar, near the left-hand extremity of the beach as you look out to sea, we often ordered smoothies first thing and then didn’t pay for them until hours later when we left – and we had to remind the staff that we’d bought them.

Oops Bar (which I’m guessing is owned by a Brit – I saw him directing the young waiters in moving some huge plant pots) had about five pairs of sunbeds beyond its beach tables and chairs. These are open to anyone who claims them – and with no apparent pressure to buy drinks or food. And claim them we did, on a pretty much daily basis. One night, we also had dinner there – ostrich steak. It was good, but very tough – it was particularly hard to cut. It look and tasted much like beef.

Amongst other culinary delights, we tried a fish grill one one occasion. The restaurant had a table with shallow containers holding ice and a selection of fresh fish, big prawns, squid and so on. We shared a green parrot fish. One of the more interesting drinks we had was a calamansi juice. Calamansi is a green citrus fruit about the size and shape of a large marble; it’s also very sour. It’s used to good effect by squeezing one over a fish or other food. Perhaps our favourite meal was Thai curry, fried rice and spring rolls at a place near our hotel that specialised in hot woks. Although we waited a long time for our meal the one time we were there, when it came it was delicious and huge. Experience had taught us to expect much smaller portions.

There was an ice cream place that took your two scoops of ice cream and put them on a circular plate that seemed alternately heat and chill the ice cream while the woman chopped and kneaded fruit into the ice cream with a pair of spatulas. Finally, the mix would be scraped off into a roll and put in a polystyrene cup with a couple of toppings of your choice. We had that a few times.

Whilst eating, it was very common to be approached by a small group of young boys who would start a half-hearted rendition of a random Christmas song. Whenever this happened to us, we just shook our heads and the kids moved on to the next table.

In terms of activities, we spent lots of time on the beach and in the water. Our friends Ksan and Jun-hong lent us their goggles and snorkels, so we swam out into the warm, shallow waters to gaze down at the hidden world of little fish, sea urchins and starfish. Our first such expedition took us quite a way out among all the boats anchored offshore. Habiba and decided to head back – she suggested we swim fast. However, I’m not such good swimmer, so I quickly got tired – and then got seawater in my snorkel, which doesn’t have a valve on the top. Scared of drowning I had to stop and try and stand on the sea bed, hoping I wouldn’t stand on a sea urchin. After a rest, I was able to swim back to shore, which, while it wasn’t far away, seemed to take about ten minutes. That aside, the snorkelling was lots of fun. Maybe in twelve months’ time, I can get some more swimming practice in.

I think Alona Beach compares favourably with Ko Phi Phi in Thailand (where we went last year). It’s a little less touristy, less intense. Although the quid pro quo is that there’s less choice – less in the way of eating, drinking and shopping. On Ko Phi Phi, there were lots of diving shops and travel agents lining the narrow avenues leading to the beach and the hotels. While such places were present here, lots of business seemed to be conducted by guys who would stand around by the entrance to the beach and ask passersby by if they wanted to go on this or that trip. We did both this trip and that trip, but that’ll be the subject of another post.

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