Saturday, June 18, 2011

Pearl Farm Resort

Surrounded by ocean in every direction, I fill my lungs with the salty spray of sea air – a welcome change from the air pollution of any big city. After twenty minutes of smooth sailing, our seemingly silent boat (a novelty in The Philippines) docked upon the shores of this sublime island paradise. Recently swallowed up by the ever-increasing city limits of Metro Davao, Samal is the perfect island for escape artists and lovers. 

Although I disembark the electric boat sometime after sunset, my first impressions of Pearl Farm are still nothing but awe and wonder. It's perhaps no surprise to me, even after dark, that this resort was designed by an artist and not an architect. It all just adds to its already abundant postcard persona. The theme is Asian tropical but this is not your standard nipa hut! Expect Balinese style high ceilings, bamboo structures, but most notably - ever present luxury.

Once home to an abundance of pink, white and gold pearls (hence the name), this beachside resort covers over 14 hectares that once played host to thousands of white lipped oysters. Unlike other resorts in the area, the buildings don't impose on the tranquil settings. Instead they were built around the contours of the island.  

Before I even get a chance to step inside my room, I'm dwarfed by the size of it all. This may be considered basic accommodation by the elite, but this waterfront cottage far exceeds the dimensions of my studio apartment (and travel writer budget!). This really is how the other half live, so as expected, the price tag reads 'splurge only.'  The moment you step off the boat, members of the staff are there to welcome you with warm smiles and open hearts. You don't just feel like a VIP here, you become one.

Something as simple as bathroom towels, become origami creations, with each day presenting a new animal. I can scarcely believe my eyes, as I spy an elephant sitting on my bed, made from about 3 bath towels and a boatload of patience. The following day, my elephant friend will be no more, vanishing in thin air to be replaced by an elegant swan.

Breakfast and dinner is a buffet affair, with world class cuisine and both Filipino and Western food available. Maranao Restaurant serves a varied mixture of cuisine, with many different palates catered for to suit a complex list of clientele. If unparalleled luxury is your goal, why not set yourself up with table and chair on the enticing water’s edge? Anything is possible – this is the life!

Hidden coves are scattered throughout Samal Island. The sand is as soft as sugar and rears a blinding shade of white at the onset of the midday sun. The surrounding turquoise waters fluctuate between green and blue throughout the day, depending on the ferocity of the sun. I sprawl myself out on a lounge chair to read a book, and notice the change of colour between each chapter. Yes, it really does happen that fast.

I opt not to wait the required thirty minutes before swimming, as the twinkling ocean rising and falling in the corner of my eyes, teases me relentlessly. The tropical climate and proximity to the equator means that it’s always hot and humid in Mindanao, making swimming the activity of choice year round. The warm waters are akin to that of a jet-stream Jacuzzi, working wonders on your peace of mind and delivering tranquillity in spades. 

Beautiful coral gardens can be seen from the jetty upon arrival, or spotted from the shore in other parts of the island. While the reefs are home to neon-like fish and shimmering shoals, those snorkelers who consider themselves a little more adventurous will find the bigger fish waiting under the resort’s main jetty. Here you will find tuna and snapper, as well as barracuda if you're lucky. For scuba divers with an itch for exploration, there are two sunken WW2 battleships less than 60m from the resort. 

Aqua Sports Activity Centre is home to many activities, both above and below the water's surface. Speed boats and outriggers can be rented out for a sunset cruise, perfect for honeymooners and those who are just hopeless romantics. Although banana boats, kayaks and wind surfing are all on offer - I can't in good logic pass up the chance to ride a jet ski.

Jet skis are available on a per use basis, and feeling like something new, I decide to give it a go. It's like mixing the 'walk on water' abilities of Jesus Christ, with the rebellious nature of 'Easy Rider.' It's bliss. As I roar across the water to a not too distant mountain, all the worries of the world are blown away. The huts on the shoreline quickly come into focus, and the ripple of waves left by my wake, provides a nice rocking action to my machine.

Home to more than just indulgence and water sports, visitors are also able to learn about the Mandaya people, a tribe native to the area of Eastern Mindanao. Adjacent to the tennis courts, I watched the intricate process of transforming a local cloth known as Dagmay, into everything from handbags to household ornaments. In the process, I was lucky enough to learn a little about their tribal folklore and spiritual beliefs, something I don't think they offer at Club Med.


By Plane - From Metro Manila, three major airlines fly daily to Davao and the flight is a breeze at only 1 hour and 45 minutes.

By Boat - Two shipping lines (SuperFerry & Sulpicio) have regular trips to Davao from various locations, scattered throughout the country, including; Manila, Iloilo City & Cebu. Travel time from Manila can reach two days.


Prices range from somewhat affordable to downright expensive. The Hilltop Room is the most affordable at $150 USD per night, while those wanting to splurge on a Malipano Villa can expect to pay $680 USD each night for the privilege.

Roundtrip transfers from the airport will set you back $20 USD, while the roundtrip boat transfers will cost another $25 USD.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Coron, Palawan

There are several ways to find yourself in Coron, Palawan.

You have the option to catch a one hour flight from Manila, and while it's convenient - you're missing out on a lot of adventure along the way. If you have an aversion to airplanes, or just really love the deep blue sea - you have the option of going by boat. Don't expect a huge and luxurious cruise liner though, as I did, for the boat you catch probably won't be big enough for 15 people.

                                                                            The journey from San Jose, Occidental Mindoro, lasts about six to eight hours depending on weather conditions. Although stuffed to capacity with cargo, everything from rusty spoons to chicken wire, I am still able to stretch my (sea) legs - albeit on bags of rice and garlic. As it can be a tiresome journey, the crew are kind enough to share their lunch with the passengers. For hours at a time there is no land in sight, but rather than feeling helpless, I'm exhilarated by the experience. Even when the captain is zig zagging through treacherous waves, I can't help but smile and slap my thigh at the rise and fall of this small wooden banca.                                                                    

That's not to say I wasn't relieved when we finally reached land. Touching base in Coron, I felt instantly welcomed by the landscape of sheer limestone cliffs, tranquil waters and indeed civilization itself - a respite most welcome.

Once out of the boat and on dry land again, I bypass the gang of tricycle drivers and walk towards the Hollywood style 'CORON' lettering on the top of one of many mountains that surround the cityscape. The streets themselves are a winding maze, with a buffet of dive-shops, restaurants and bars to choose from. Proving once again that Filipinos are the most hospitable bunch in all of Asia, I'm welcomed to Palawan a whopping seven times, just en route to my hotel.

After a few days of relenting, I give in and do something touristy. I opt for a day of island hopping, and within ten minutes i'm sitting on the banca and awaiting adventure. With a firm prod of a mighty bamboo pole, the captain of the ship sets sail. The motor coughs and splutters into life like a pack-a-day smoker as we leave Coron harbor for a day of snorkeling through corals in and around the shipwrecks of WW2 battleships. The air is no longer heavy and humid, as we bid a silent thanks to the gentle sea breeze.

It's still true, even in this day and age of wireless internet and talking toilets, that we know more about what goes on in outer space, than we do in the depths of our mysterious oceans. The coral reefs here resemble an underwater forest of sorts, complete with trees, bushes and grass (so to speak). The first life form that I spot underwater is a starfish the size of Shaquille O'Neal's hand, but with fat sausage-like fingers. A tremendous shade of shimmering blue, I watch it sit idly by, clinging on to a rock face. 

As I rise to the surface to rinse my goggles, I'm followed upwards by a shoal of flying fish. I watch them glide atop the water, like skipping stones on a lake, before they submerge once more. No doubt due to the sunken ship, this cove of corals is a protected area, offering the chance to see fish both big and small. What catches my interest though, is a puffer fish, both the shape and color of a pineapple.

No doubt seeing me as a threat, it seeks refuge out of harm's way in a coral crevice. I watch its head darting out every once in a while, just to watch me watching it. I take a break from swimming to sprawl myself on the sand beneath a coconut tree. It is then and there that i'm reminded of a statistic that lists falling coconuts as the most likely way to injure yourself in Palawan. It beats being knifed on a train carriage in Perth, but I think for now, I'll find shade elsewhere.

The skeleton wreck of a Japanese battleship from WW2 is just as the name suggests. All that remains are the bones of a once great warship. The hull is encrusted with shells, and slowly but surely it is becoming part of the sub-aquatic furniture. The surrounding waters are the murkiest shade of navy blue and the atmosphere is more than a little somber. After several attempts, I succeed in touching it, if only briefly. Seeing as how this is my first attempt at free diving, and it's ten meters below the surface - I'm glowing with pride nonetheless =)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Walking through time in Manila.


The capital city of The Philippines, along with her residents (Manilenos), display an abundance of Latin flair. Understandably so, as this enigmatic nation was a Spanish colony for over three centuries. This is a city comprised of sixteen separate cities, with a greater urban area of over twenty million people. That's bigger than London or New York City. Widely considered as one of South East Asia's most cosmopolitan cities, Manila is bursting at the seams with possibilities. 

The first thing most visitors will take away from it, is the unashamedly friendliness of the people. Expect big smiles, happy faces and excited waving - all from strangers. I must have been welcomed to Manila six or seven times, all within the first few hours of my arrival. This is the kind of place where a smile goes a long long way, so don't forget to bring your's!

Manila acts as a perfect beginner's guide to The Philippines. It is here you can uncover a wealth of history and culture. Regardless of your nationality (or gender), locals are likely to call out to you 'Hey Joe!' wherever you go. This is a throwback to the days of WW2, when American soldiers fought alongside Filipinos and liberated them from the Japanese Imperial Army. It's not an insult, it's just one of the many ways a foreign visitor will be welcomed to these vibrant shores.


This is the oldest part of Manila, with the wall surrounding the city being built in the 16th century. Amazingly, it is still intact today, even after the battering Manila got during WW2. The area is perfect for wandering around and getting lost in, if it's too hot though, be sure to hail a pedi-cab. You can get a tour of all the hotspots for the bargain rate of 150 PHP! Highlights include; Fort Domingo, Manila Cathedral, Rizal shrine and other historical landmarks, including many museums. There are also a few restaurants serving up authentic Spanish fare, go on, try some paella!

Your pedi-cab driver may have a few suggestions of his own too.
"Do you like guns, big guns?" he asks excitedly, in an accent akin to Tony Montana (Scarface).
"Sure," I replied, trying but failing to match his enthusiasm. All over the world, boys will be boys.

Located just a stone's throw away from Intramuros, is Rizal park. It's more than just a popular picnic spot for families and lovebirds alike, it's named in honor of Jose Rizal - the national hero. Rizal was a freedom fighter, scholar and well renowned poet, but worst of all, he was an atheist! A monument marks the spot of his assassination, and surrounding it are lush green landscapes, water fountains of outrageous proportions and an abundance of outdoor aerobics classes. Don't be surprised if you get asked to join in!

For a more in-depth and extensive tour of the area, you'd best tag along for a tour with Carlos Celdran. Part-time entertainer, occasional comedian and full-time tour guide, this local celebrity made headlines around the world last year when he dressed up as Jose Rizal and entered Manila Cathedral during mass holding up a sign exclaiming 'STOP getting involved in politics.'

Armed with a top hat and a boombox, Celdran is unlike any other tour guide. He is eccentric and entertaining, but his knowledge of Manila is also second to none. From its Islamic beginnings, to the origin of the name (a little white flower that grows on the banks of the Pasig river), Celdran really will change the way you look at Manila.

The tour is very informative, but despite the length of three hours - is entertaining throughout. Whether he's throwing flower petals in the air, donning an Uncle Sam hat or smoking a pipe a la General MacArthur, you can rest assured that there is never a dull moment on this guided walk.

The always smiling Carlos, loses his joking manner when recounting the tragic loss of Jose Rizal. Comparing the Catholic church to the Taliban, he warns his audience of the dangers of mixing religion with politics. Standing before the monolithic Manila Cathedral, he recounts the number of times it has been reconstructed within its 300 year history. The building dwarfs everything it surrounds, and as if reading my mind, Carlos clicks his fingers and points at me.
"Religion is king here, as it was then. The Philippines was never a colony of Spain, we were created merely as an outpost of the Vatican. Why do you think we never learned to speak Spanish?" he exclaims.

The click-clack of a horse's hooves, as well as the occasional snort, means it's time for a horse drawn carriage. Riding through the cobblestone streets, I see people taking an afternoon snooze on the grass. The Spanish priests sent out here may not have brought with them their language, but they certainly introduced the siesta.

While a tour of this fascinating districts allows visitors a glimpse into what Manila was like three centuries ago, a visit to Corregidor is vital in understanding the role WW2 played in shaping the city we see today. The 'Battle of Manila' claimed the lives of over 100,000 civilians, and essentially, the city had to start again from scratch.


Also known as 'the rock,' this island is 48 kms from Manila by fast ferry and was a major strategic battlepoint during WW2. It's a fantastic place to soak up some Filipino history, as well as bask in national pride. Owned by the government, the only way to see Corregidor is on a guided group tour for 2,000 PHP ($45). Options are abound for overnight stays also, with a resort on offer, as well as bicycle trails, hiking and even a zip-line for the kids.

The voice of Franklin Dela Roosevelt greets passengers on board the ferry, during a short documentary on the history of this mysterious island. I learn it was only one day after the bombing at Pearl Harbor, that the Japanese attacked Manila. The battle for Manila took place in February 1942 After taking over the capital, 26 days of constant bombing met Corregidor. Knowing they could not stop the inevitable, the soldiers instead opted to delay it for as long as possible, their only goal - survival. 20,000 prisoners of war (American/Filipino) died at the hands of the Japanese army, and it was only through the element of surprise that the allied forces were able to reclaim the island, as an attack by sea would be too obvious.

As we disembark the ferry, I'm put in mind of 'Jurassic Park,' complete with a gushing guide and an awaiting cable car. At the end of the tour, it instead becomes Superman's fortress of solitude. First occupied by foreign forces from Spain in 1671, it became American in 1901, Japanese in 1942 and eventually Filipino in 1945. The island is a source of great Filipino patriotism, evident on any given day tour.

The battle scarred barracks remain in ruins, with bullet holes intact. The military stronghold is clustered with cannons, not to mention a sizable art collection, including bleak but beautiful oil paintings - depicting WW2 and the impact it had on this country. Of all the cities in the world bombed during WW2, Manila is second only in total damages to Warsaw, Poland.

Ancient tunnels, used by both axis and allies, can be explored only with a helmet and torch. You can try doing it on the sly, like I did, but you'll likely meet monitor lizards, snakes and even bats that call these dark and dreary spaces home - so watch your step! There's a light and (loud) sound show on offer for an additional 150 PHP, that reels off a timeline and series of events in a concise, if extensive manner.

The views are fantastic throughout the whole tour, with the skyline of Manila visible on a clear day from certain points on the island. The hills are of a rolling green variety, with tall trees here, there and everywhere. Surprisingly so, considering only several trees escaped the war unharmed. The Pacific War Memorial rounds out the tour nicely, with an imposing freefall structure, casting out eyes on a cold, blue ocean.

Corregidor Island is well worth a visit, even if you're not a military history buff. It helps you to learn and appreciate Filipino culture on a deeper level. Knowing the history of this enigmatic nation, helps you to understand the current state and what the future holds.


Makati is the financial district, a part of the city that feels very westernized - with designer shopping, fast food chains and trendy hangout spots galore. The glistening skyscrapers found here proudly exclaim Manila's place in the 21st century.  The streets and buildings are meticulously clean and kept in tip top condition by an army of street sweepers working day and night. As such, the area is frequented by westerners on vacation, as well as expats seeking a break from the encompassing madness. This is in direct contrast to areas like Pasay, a part of town where spotting white folk could almost be considered a sport!

Makati and nearby Malate share the title of premier nightlife district in town. Both districts offer a multitude of bars, restaurants and a staggering amount of nightclubs. Malate has a slightly more bohemian style, well known for live-bands and acoustic sets, but wherever you go in town - electro music is the staple sound for the Manileno youth. Expect it to be played loud and until all hours of the night, even on weekdays. 

To truly understand the capital city of this enigmatic nation though, you must leave the modern comforts of Makati. While a break-neck speed trishaw ride through the crowded streets of Pasay may suffice for visitors with limited time, a better bet is to visit the historical corners of the city like Intramuros.

Monday, June 6, 2011

A Vagabond in Varanasi


"Benares (Varanasi) is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together." - Mark Twain

Earlier this year, I found myself in Varanasi. This was my first adventure on the Indian subcontinent, and in typical vagabond style, I planned nothing ahead of time. I envisioned a quick stopover for one or two nights, nothing fancy, before trudging onward to New Delhi – a grueling train journey that can last upwards of 24 hours! After my first breakfast curry, and listening to a passionate call to prayer as I watched the sun slowly rising – I knew I wouldn't be going anywhere in a hurry.

My Dad had always told me that when he died, he wanted me to take his ashes to Varanasi and scatter them in the Ganges river, to do this he said was 'a passport to heaven.' I later learned that there are only fifteen days each year (determined by astrology) known as the 'festival of the dead' in which one can escape the cycle of rebirth, and the doorway to Nirvana is opened. While the chances of dying within this window of opportunity are less than five percent, many elderly people in India choose to live out their final days in Varanasi, in the hopes that they'll be in the lucky minority. 

There are many houses for the sick and dying in town, and with some of the more popular ghats cremating up to 200 bodies on any given day, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Varanasi is all doom and gloom. While death may be an everyday affair, life is too, something which people often forget. Walk down any street and you're bound to hear laughter, see smiles and feel the forces of life tugging at your sleeve.

Locals like to tell foreigners that Varanasi is the oldest city in the world, and while this claim may be disputed by scholars, the city has been continually inhabited for at least 3000 years. Legend has it that Shiva gifted this city to his wife as a wedding gift, earning it the nickname of 'honeymoon city.' A festival is held during February/March each year, coincidentally landing on Valentine's Day. The town is awash with drunken lovers, and bhang lassi (think marijuana milkshake) flows freely. Don't be surprised to see locals pouring tea or whiskey for a seemingly invisible person, this is Shiva's city and these offerings are a sign of respect. 

After two weeks in town, I decided to do as the locals do, and bathe in the holy river. The Ganges river is the holiest river in all of India, and is known in circles as the 'Hindu heartbeat.' Over two million pilgrims bathe in the waters each day, with around 60,000 in Varanasi alone. I decide to live in the moment, shake off the numerous warnings I have received both at home and abroad, and go for an early morning dip.

At 5am, the city is still, but stirring slightly into life. The sun has not yet awoken from its slumber, and almost immediately I get lost in the giant labyrinth that is the old city. Dressed in only board shorts and a towel, I look everywhere for a ghat, the descending steps that make their way into India's holiest river. Instead I meet a Sadhu, one of India's wandering holy men, not to mention a Varanasi staple.

I remark to him upon the similarity of both our styles. We both have long shaggy hair, scraggly beards and are dressed in little to nothing, him a glowing orange robe wrapped snug around his midsection and myself in the aforementioned board shorts. He just smiles though, bows his head slightly and presses his palms together to say, "Namaste." A traditional stance/greeting found throughout India, and not just with the holy men.


He opens his eyes slowly, and in a voice befitting a wise prophet, he asks in perfect English, "which country are you from?" I tell him Australia, and when I do he does what everyone else does in India - he mentions cricket. He is disgusted with the 'underarm incident' and asks me about Shane Warne's apparent lack of morals. He stops mid-rant, interrupted by the yelp of an animal in distress. It appears my tour of the temple is over, and we spend the next five minutes collecting lost puppies for their tired mama. I find a tiny puppy, black and white but shivering with the cold, her eyes are closed firmly - perhaps not yet open. I place the puppy amidst long lost brothers and sisters at their mother's teat. The tired mother barks a wordless woof, do doubt canine for 'thanks.'

I make my way to a nearby ghat, with directions from a bemused German backpacker. Last year a western man died after drinking water from the Ganges while swimming, so any effort to bathe in these polluted waters is met with disbelief. I think I'll stick to the shallow end. With all the remaining notes in my pocket, I buy floating flower pots in which I can light a candle for each member of my family. The kids push me to buy an extra pot for Lord Shiva, and as it's his city, I decide it's the polite thing to do. I buy five candles in total, and watch them drift off into oblivion. The soundtrack to the Ganges at this time in the morning is a slow repetitive drumbeat, with collective prayers of the faithful and the constant scoop and splash of the sacred water.

I descend slowly into the murky muddy waters, accompanied by a mob of widows and a few pilgrims too. They have all brought soap, complete with little soap dishes, no doubt an attempt to counteract the filth and grunge that becomes more apparent with each minute passing. Step by slippery step, I descend, and before long the water has reached my chest. I lift it in my hands and release it back into the river, the colour and consistency puts me in mind of French onion soup. I go out a little further, to where there's no steps and open water. I hear the sounds of people yelling from the ghats, and look back to see a concerned party of pilgrims pointing to a 'no swimming' sign, but alas it's in Hindi.

It is at this point that my brain feels the need to remind me that along the 7km stretch of river that runs through town, there are over 30 sewers pumping out last night's masala dosa. As I remember a disembodied skull that was bobbing up and down beside the boat, only days earlier on a sunset cruise – I decide abruptly that it's time to dry off.