Puerto Princesia, Palawan, Philippines – Anytime you take a bus or minivan in Southeast Asia, it’s guaranteed the first stop will be around the corner at a gas station – getting fuel is done on your time. And drivers never top up the tank: For short trips they buy just enough fuel to get to the destination, and for long trips they buy enough to get to the next rest stop – where they can refuel and receive free meals in exchange for bringing busloads of potential customers.
Apparently the same thing is true when you fly. Due to “heavy traffic” at the Tagbilaran airpot (two planes), our connecting flight coming from Manila had to be rerouted for a refueling stop. The flight from Manila only takes 45 minutes. So after flying about an hour, the plane ran low enough on gas that they had to fly to a different city just to refuel. Hope the pilots got free meals!
Once the two planes departed, our plane landed to the usual fanfare which had little to do with this particular flight – when a plane comes in for landing everyone in the airport rushes up to the windows to watch, shouting and taking pictures. And as if trying to atone for their tardiness, the airlines handed out little orange umbrellas for us to use for the the short walk out to the plane.
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Towering over the baggage claim in Puerto Princesia, Palawan’s capital, was a huge banner thanking us for visiting Palawan – proudly boasting its inclusion on National Geographic’s Top Destinations for 2011 and how the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River – our reason for stopping here) is on the ballot for the new Seven Wonders of the World (which everyone will remind us of over the next few days). Since we visited the Khong Lor underground river in Laos, which was incredible, we were curious to see what all the fuss was about.
The banner also had a montage of various Palawan highlights which was dominated by a photo of Abraham Khalil Mitra, Palawan’s governor since July 2010, looking perfectly at home in a country where even construction workers wear flip-flops: an unbuttoned causal shirt and a several days worth of stubble.
But Mitra is gonna need more than a big mugshot to have an impact on the same scale as former governor Joel T. Reyes. Palawan is littered with signs – on schools, cafes, waiting sheds, salons, bus stations, whatever – that proclaim it as a “Joel T. Reyes Project”. The only time we saw Mitra’s name was on that banner in the airport. Maybe that was his first project.
Based on what we read, we were hoping Puerta Princessa was going to be a town with a cool vibe that we would enjoy spending time in – like Vientiane or Hoi An – because so far the Philippines had offered either little villages or loud, dirty cities. Puerto Princesia turned out to be another charmless city. Fortunately the underground river is located in Sabang – a sleepy seaside town a couple hours north – so we didn’t spend much time during the day in Puerto Princesia proper.
Our guide for the river tour was Harry, one of the most enjoyable guides we’ve ever had. He was really funny and even had a routine he does on each tour which was the perfect blend of information, spontaneity, and jokes. Harry is also aware of when people don’t appreciate his humor and can mellow out if needed. He even lamented that when the drivers know his routine verbatim it’s time to work out some new material.
In his early 20’s, Harry is working to save money so he can retake his college exams in Manila which he failed the first time. Because there is no review course (mandatory to pass the exam) in Palawan, he has to save enough to pay for the trip up to Manila, housing, and the fees for the review course and the exam.
When I asked how long he’d been a guide he said it that today was his first time, and that the driver had just gotten his license. Then he got serious and talked about how he has been a guide for years and still hadn’t been able to save enough money to retake the exams. It almost sounded as if he was giving up hope.
On the way out of Puerto Princesesa we got lost trying to find a Canadian couple who was living outside the town in a homestay. Staying true to form, they were on holiday from teaching English in Korea. And because of our late start, we lost our place in line for the river tour. So we decided first to eat lunch at an beachside buffet in Sabang.
After lunch we got in our boat that took us across the bay – actually the South China Sea – to the park entrance. On the way over Harry explained the process for paying the admission fee and voting in the “New Seven Natural Wonders” poll – he mentioned that if we voted for something else they wouldn’t let us in the cave. Then he warned us about the somewhat aggressive monkeys near the cave, he said they have been know to steal cameras and post people’s photos on Facebook.
A noticeable difference with the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries is the prevalence of Christianity. In the month or so we’ve been traveling around, we haven’t seen a single Buddha or temple. Every town has a church lining one side of the main plaza and there are posters with the Ten Commandments and various evangelical warnings scattered around town; all the jeepneys and tricycles are adorned with biblical quotes and religious bumper stickers.
So it was no surprise when the rock formations our river guide pointed out where in the likeness of the Virgin Mary, Jesus or The Last Supper, and the parts of the cave were called the cathedral or the rectory – where as in the underground river in Laos, the rock formations were icons from Buddhism or some scene from nature.
While the cave was interesting, it didn’t come close to the Khong Lor – surely not something worthy being one of the wonders of the world. Aside from the millions of bats residing inside the cave – some flying a little too close for comfort – the best parts of the trip were outside the cave: crossing the South China Sea, the monkeys and lizards around the park entrance, and of course, Harry’s jokes.