Palawan: Jewel of the Philippines
I’d like to tell you of all the virtues of the Island province of Palawan. Unfortunately, we spent our entire time there in Puerto Princesa, and there is a lot more to the island than the capitol, wondrous sights such as El Nido and the northern islands. Fortunately, many of Palawan’s highlights lie within the city boundaries of Puerto Princessa, which are extensive for a city of less than a quarter million inhabitants, so it was hardly a wasted trip.
Following a short flight from Manila, we landed in the single-runway airport that serves the entire island. Although small, this is one of the nicer airports I’ve visited, mostly because, as a smoker, I appreciate smoking rooms in airports and America has—for the most part—eliminated such facilities in the government’s ongoing policy of discrimination against tobacco in all forms, except for cigars, which are currently fashionable and therefore acceptable by the Politically Correct crowd. The small but well ventilated smoking room has a terrific view, too, and the terminal has enough air conditioners to keep passengers awaiting departures from the island comfortable for hours, which is good because it can take a while to get catch a flight.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Some of the highlights we covered during our brief stay included the underground river in Sabang, one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, an amazingly beautiful and spellbinding sight that I was forced to miss because no one bothered to tell us until we were on the island that the bus drive to the boats that take you into the caves travels down an incredible windy, nauseating road for two hours, a trip that anyone suffering from motion sickness—such as myself—would be well advised to avoid. My wife said that it was an incredible trip, even with the bats (she’s not too fond of many wild critters, bats being near the top of this list), so I’ll take her word for it.
On the first day, we visited the Mitra Ranch. There was a history lesson that went along with this stop, but I missed most of it because the locale afforded us spectacular views of the surrounding hills, valleys and meadows, not to mention breathtaking views of Honda Bay.
The most poignant stop of the day was the World War II Memorial Park, where those slaughtered mercilessly by the Japanese following their invasion of the Philippines are honored. This should have been a much sadder destination than it was, but because the park is beautifully landscaped to the point of utter distraction, one tends to overlook the cheerless history of the place. In one area we saw small, rounded, grass-covered domes of earth that looked suspiciously like the so-called Chocolate Hills of Bohol. As I have yet to see the actual Chocolate Hills, I remain suspicious that they don’t actually exist and that these little mounds are what you see when you look at pictures of the Chocolate Hills. The name Thomas certainly fits for me.
A stop at the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center (locally known as the Crocodile Farm) left us hot and sweaty as the facility is located inland and stifles in breezeless humidity. But we did see plenty of crocodiles, including one that looked like it could eat the entire Oakland Raiders team with room left for dessert. The trails led to a wide variety of other wildlife, including a rather secluded Philippine eagle and a binturong that they let crawl all over whoever wants to hold the lovely, gentle creature. And the nature shows I have seen were right: binturong smell just like Fritos corn chips.
As a true foodie—and one who has been accustomed to Pinoy foods for quite some time—the highlight of that first day for me was lunch as Badjao Seafront Restaurant. This restaurant features amazing views of whatever bay it inhabits (for some reason, maps of Palawan refuse to identify the bay on which the airport lays; they must have their reasons for such secrecy), as well as spectacular food. The meal lasted over an hour, we ate constantly and luckily they had a fleet of wheel barrows to roll us all back out to our busses.
For me, the highlight of the trip was our visit to the Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm. Here, prisoners that have served half of their sentence with good behavior are allowed to live a nearly free life on the grounds of the penal colony. This is no small thing, as the grounds cover over 45,000 hectares and afford magnificent views of the surrounding mountains. Here the prisoners can live as they choose, within limits. They work farms or in crafts shops, sell their wares in the on-site gift shop and the pay they earn is kept in a fund that they receive upon parole, giving them a nest egg and work skills to begin a better life upon release. The inmates live on the honor system: any of them could easily walk right out of the colony. This, of course, would result in a new prison sentence without the possibility of living in the penal colony, where they can have regular and unsupervised visits from friends and family. Visitors are not only welcome, but encouraged to visit the colony, and the inmates I met were all friendly, apparently happy and very respectful. I wish we had colonies like this in my country!
We stayed at the Legend Palawan Hotel, probably because it’s one of the few inns large enough to accommodate a group of our size. The hotel had its good and bad points, and enough of the latter to prevent me from recommending it. The staff was terrific, however, and the food was decent. If you stay here, just make sure the air conditioner for your room works before settling in. Not all units function, and you won’t be able to sleep without one.
The last day of our tour featured island hopping in Honda Bay. The trip out on the outrigger took over half an hour, and as one prone to motion sickness, it was a borderline ride: choppy enough to make the very sensitive seasick if they aren’t careful. I was careful, however, which was a good thing because on our first stop on Pandan Island we were served lechon—and a lot of delicious seafood—at the banquet on the beach. The views from the island were terrific, there was a small swimming/diving area netted off from the rest of the bay (I understand that sharks can be a real problem in the area) and the centrally located bar had very cold beer on hand, so I was a happy camper.
Next we visited Cowrie Island, where it rained pretty much the entire time. Not that there was a lot to see as the island was so small you could sprint across it’s longer length in about a minute, and crawl across its narrow middle in a matter of seconds. But again there was a centrally located bar, so nobody cared about the light rain. There was no food to speak of—not that we needed any more—but they did have several masseuses doing their thing right on the beach.
My one regret (well, two regrets) was not visiting the underground river or El Nido. With my history of over 50 years of motion sickness, I may never see the river, but my wife and I have already vowed to stay in El Nido the next time we fly to Palawan. One more thing you should know: Palawan is the cleanest, most litter-free province of the Philippines. The reason: the third littering offense lands you in jail for 3 weeks. Pocket those cigarette butts or you’ll regret it!
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