Thursday 17 March 2016

Philippines - Spring 2016

Embriotic Fluid 
 Friday, 5 february

One country had to pull the short straw when it came to South East Asian cuisines.  It's not awful, it's just much blander and simpler in comparison to its neighbours.  There is, however, one food item that has been on my list since the blog started; Balut - an egg... with a half formed chicken fetus inside.  Mmmmmmmmmmmm....

Of the 7107 islands in the Philippines we chose 3 for our 2 week Chinese New Year break; Coron, Donsol and Borocay.  Coron for the relaxation, Donsol for the whale sharks and Borocay for the socialising.  Coron, as predicted, was the perfect place to kick back and relax.  The rundown, seemingly abandoned tourist centre reflects the number of tourists that are drawn here.  It's peaceful, it's local and it has yet to be ruined.  
I have eaten the fetus egg before in Cambodia but this time I was going to do it properly.  Like a Filipino!  I picked one up from a street cart and followed the instructions from the entertained customer who bought 3.  So first you tap the top of the egg against the side of the cart; then you carefully peel off the shell from the top of the egg...easy enough...; then you drink the murky yellow liquid...; then you throw up...; then you eat the slimy, limp, grey bird fetus; throw up again...   Ok so I didn't throw up but for some reason drinking the embriotic fluid from an egg shell with a dead baby chick in it was one of the hardest things I have ever had to stomach!  Then squirt some spicy vinegar in to the egg and drink that too.  The man gobbed all three in the time it took me to peel and eat one.  Once you have got past drinking the shot off eggy liquid fart the rest is actually not bad.  Quite tasty in fact! Just a meaty egg.  Though the white part for some reason has the taste and texture of a crunchy pencil eraser.  Coron has been a success already!  We can go home now.
A brilliant full day trip was planned with a local tour guide and as there were 7 of us we got a boat to ourselves.  Beautiful snorkeling, Kayangan lake (left+right), fantastic secluded beach lunch (above - it was secluded until the other tour boats arrived!) and a lagoon that requires swimming through an underwater tunnel to get to it...or climb over with the ladder provided but one is certainly cooler than the other.  Kayangan lake is the one not to miss though and is something I have never seen before with its emerald green clear waters and underwater rock formations. 

On recommendation from our hotel we dined on seafood at Kawayanan Grill Station and I ordered the seafood platter.  I make this mistake every time I eat at a place like this and it is always disappointing.  Its the decision between a large variety cooked mediocrely or one thing cooked well.  We did however enjoy several bowls of "Dynamite Lumpia" which are like Jalepeno poppers done properly.   Stuffed finger chillies wrapped in spring roll pastry, bread crumbed and deep fried.  Served with a side of sweet chili sauce it makes your forehead sweat but you keep ordering more.  Who said Filipino food was rubbish?!    

Another thing I have never done is stay on an Island resort.  In a country with over 7000 islands it felt like this was the place to do it.  Balinsasayaw resort is a beautiful place to do nothing.  Read, learn a few card games, feast on seafood and drink cold Pilsner (only in the evenings as the fridges run on a generator!) is pretty much all we did.  They have a couple of platforms out at sea in amongst luscious coral to break up the day and also organise day trips if you wish.  We just spent the first whole day on the platform with a bottle of rum and for the rest of the time I happily switched between hammock reading to snorkeling and back to hammock reading.  What more could you possibly need?!  

It was going to be a struggle to beat Balinsasayaw and so we kept our expectations low for our next stay at Cashew Grove in North Coron.  We chose this area as it was the place to go diving with manatees.  However, when we arrived the thought of leaving such a beautiful place for any extended period of time just seemed ludicrous!  Cashew Grove has it all;  a set of beach huts; a poolside bar with amazing fresh cocktails; stargazing ceilings in the rooms and outdoor bathrooms (in a good way!) so you can watch the night sky whilst you drop a doozie.  The coral isn't as lively as Balinsasayaw and the platform has a fierce current around it but everything else makes up for it.  Staff are also lovely and organised an afternoon of fishing for us and then grilled the 4 fish we caught for dinner!  If you are in Coron, you would be a fool to miss this place.  
Swimming with the Butanding
Sunday, 14 February
Our trip has followed a perfect exponential curve in terms of energy.  Coron was the definition of horizontal, Donsol has a slight gradient and Borocay isn't far off vertical.  We will get to Borocay later.  Donsol is the perfect stepping stone from Coron.  A bit of a ball ache journey but Donsol was the place to be.  Famous for being the eco-friendly way to swim with the whale sharks.  Well... eco-friendlier way!

We're staying at Woodland Resort which has a sister hotel down the road.  Woodland is the cheaper backpackers choice with louder music and a bit more buzz to it.  We had friends staying at both and so switched between the two as we fancied.  I know of Bohol in which is a guaranteed place to swim with the whale sharks but involves feeding them and few rules in place to help minimise the disruption to the animals.  On our first night we had spoken to a number of disappointed travellers at our hotel beach side bar who spent the morning in search for them and came back life experience-less.   

We payed 700php, watched a debrief video on what to do and not to do and then got on a boat.  I have never seen a sea so calm that it just blends into the sky.  Whale shark or no whale shark it had been a glorious morning!  After about 3 hours our lookout gave us the cue to put on our snorkels and fins and hang off the side of the boat.  The video told us strictly to stay 2 meters away from the butanding but what happens when you jump in and the Whale Shark is already nose to nose with you and you have to swim up and open your legs just to let it through?!  We had about 10 seconds alone with the butanding until a thousand other people pushed and kicked past us off other boats and the Whale Shark dived down.  10 seconds of loving life and fearing for your life at the same time.  Second rule on the video was "only 6 people in the water at one time"... hmm.  It is easy to say that I'm glad that we did the eco friendly way when we actually saw the whale sharks.  I am glad!
Donsol was a great all rounder and isn't just to see the Butanding.  Yes the only reason we went was for these gentle giants but every part of our stay was perfect!  Our hotels had a great bar with decent food and between our two hotels was the best beach bar I have ever been to.  Bar-Racuda is a joint venture between a lovely Londoner running the small beachside cocktail bar and a local woman preparing the most amazing seafood next door.  Our best meal in the Philippines washed down by the best cocktails was all consumed here.  This country is well known for the worlds greatest mangoes and blend one with some rum and you've got the world's greatest Daquiri!  Tuna Sashimi and garlic grilled giant prawns aren't necessarily Filipino but that's probably a good thing.  Deep frying them with spam would just ruin it!
We couldn't leave the Philippines without a day of diving and so booked a trip with Bicol Divers to the "Manta bowl" which is rated for experienced divers only.  A strong current meant that you had to get down to the seabed quickly and anchor yourself at the bottom.  Though my PADI card says "Advanced Diver" I am by no means an experienced diver!  Therefore I was somewhat pleased that a mild storm came in forcing us to stick to the simpler dive sites.  Manta Rays shall have to wait until next time!  Another great thing to do in Donsol is a fireflies trip.  We just did it because we had a spare evening but in hindsight it should have been second to the whale sharks on our list of priorities.  I have seen the odd fire fly here and there but when a tree has thousands swarming around it it really is spectacular.  Of course photos of it do it no justice at all.  

Coron and Donsol is where my recommendations stop.  The final leg of our trip was Borocay and this may have tainted our Filipino experience a little.  Borocay is everything that Coron and Donsol is not.  Tacky, trashy and just a tad bit touristy.  Partly our fault for sticking to one main stretch of beach but unanimously we agreed that we could have happily cut this part of the trip.  We enjoyed a day of cliff jumping a short boat ride away but their really isn't much else to say about the last 3 days of our holiday.  The beach is beautiful but don't expect to relax on it.  Expect 100 boats, persistent vendors and pumping music instead.  It is not all bad, just comparatively awful to the rest of our time in the Philippines.  

Come to the Philippines to relax on luscious beaches, swim in cool clear waters and eat fresh seafood.  Adobo is their main National Dish and despite my negativity on Borocay it was here that I ate the best Adobo.  Not from any posh beach side restaurant; from a tiny shack on the way to the beach from our hotel.  Small bowls of various dishes including a delicious fried eggplant and some garlic rice.  Now garlic rice I could eat all day and Adobo is actually very tasty.  Savoury and sour from soy sauce and vinegar.  I've had it with chicken and with pork and both were decent.  

The food here in general is just all a little confusing.  Spam is massively popular and twice I have seen cooking shows where Spam was the main ingredient.  Spam and that plastic processed sausage are seen as some kind of cultural symbol!  Other local delicacies that I wasn't massively keen on were Longganisa's which are super sweet, sticky sausages served for breakfast and tasted for the rest of the day.  Fried Lechon (the other National Dish) could work if it came with some kind of signature sauce but for the most part you're just eating greasy fat.  

It is no wonder that Filipino restaurants in England are few and far between.  It wouldn't stop me from coming back though.  Each island has its very own vibe and we have officially experienced 0.04% of them.  Ill just pack a few extra bags of Cheese and Onion crisps and Super Noodles next time.  :o)