I’m in Panglao, a small island in the Philippines popular for its sandy beaches and diving. I’m not someone who can lie on a beach for hours – three chapters into the latest James Patterson novel and I’m bored. So I’ve decided to go on a tour of the island.
There are plenty of tricycle operators who are keen to sell you a tour but you’ll need to self-guide. ‘Trikes’ as they’re known locally are motorbikes with a sidecar welded on. Even if the drivers wanted to offer a commentary, which they don’t, you won’t hear a word over the engine noise. Pick your trike carefully. They come in a variety of shapes and colours, some even decorated with fairy lights. The trikes are bespoke builds and some are roomier than others. I’ve been in trikes where two people can sit relatively comfortably. In some trikes it’s like playing Twister at 40 miles an hour. They’re not expensive and you can hire one for under £10 for a morning- or afternoon-long tour of the island and the drivers appear happy to wait for you. You won’t feel rushed.
Churches seem to top the historic site lists everywhere in Panglao and the neighbouring island of Bohol. The Philippines is a deeply religious, Catholic country and churches are on every historic site trail. St Augustine Church is the biggest on the island. It appears old with its portico and red roof but most of the current structure was a 1920s rebuild following quakes. The bell tower behind was the victim of a ground shaker.
I love reading and photographing signs during my travels because they can offer a real insight into a nation. Signs outside this church reveal that the congregation might be revealing too much. Another notice advised me of an unusual service – they offer motorbike blessings. My trike driver was pretty competent, so I didn’t feel the need to contact the priest before we set off again.
A few minutes ride away from the church is the Panglao Shell Museum. Admission costs less than 30p. You could easily spend 30-minutes wandering around their large collection. If you like shells you’ll find 3,000 specimens on display. Proud owner Mr Hora opened for business seven years ago. He told me that he has the biggest collection in the Philippines including some real rarities. I resisted the urge to ask him how much he’d ‘shelled out’ on them. It was difficult. He’s a shell trader and in this part of the world there’s serious money to be earned.
Bizarrely, as it has nothing to do with shells, the museum also has stuffed snakes on display and quite an impressive outdoor climbing frame array. If there had been real snakes I think I would have clambered 40-feet to the top in seconds.
Back on the trike and I’m off to the tourist trap of Hinagdanan Cave. According to local legend a farmer who removed tree roots discovered the cavern and the underground lagoon. The man found a hole in the ground and dropped a stone. When he heard a splash he knew that he was onto something. You’ll have to run the gauntlet past shops touting tacky souvenirs to get to the entrance. This region of the Philippines is famous for Tarsier monkeys and nearly all the merchandise features images of them in one form or another. Some of the souvenirs make no sense at all – almost every stall was flogging a T-shirt featuring a rip-off of the Starbucks logo but using the image of a monkey instead of the coffee chain’s mermaid. Just odd.
The shopkeepers call out their range in order to attract your attentions as you pass. “Water sir?” “Fresh juice sir?” It’s all very polite, calling customers “sir” – almost like being in John Lewis, if they sold bananas.
The steps down to the cave are a bit slippery so it would be a challenge if you’re not too steady on your feet. I should also mention that if you’re phobic about birds, this cave is not for you. I don’t need to warn about claustrophobia as well, do I? No I’ve gone a bit British ‘health and safety’ obsessive, haven’t I?
As you walk down the steps, tiny swallows will dart over your head. The birds nest in the ceiling of the cave. The cavern is relatively well lit, with shafts of sunlight pouring in from above. The light reflects on the cool, crystal clear water and, if you want, you can go for a paddle. As I walked further into the cave, the fake floral scent of washing powder filled my nose, which I thought was quite odd. Then I noticed that a man was scrubbing the rocks. I asked him why. He told me he was removing the bird poo! A group of Russian tourists were standing open-mouthed, looking up at the birds and the man shouted a warning – “Don’t open your mouths.” I hope they understood. I thought the cave would be a nice, chilly escape from the 30°C sweaty heat on the surface. On the contrary, it was like a sauna down there.
Finally I headed off to the number one island attraction, the Bohol Bee Farm, which isn’t actually on Bohol. We’re still on Panglao. It’s a complex of wooden agricultural buildings and fields containing bee hives, a herb garden, lots of shops selling honey products and, unusually, raffia weaving! That’s diversification. I’m glad they don’t place all of their eggs in one basket.
You get a guided tour for under 50p. Rather oddly, there’s an unused water-filled swimming pool in the waiting area. Maybe you have to dive in there and hide if the bees get angry and turn on the tourists?
The guided tour groups are small. I toured in a party of four. First, our friendly and engaging guide took us to the herb garden where we were told how they grow herbs and we learned about some of their special properties. There was one plant called pandan that’s used to tackle cockroach infestations. I made a note not to eat at any restaurants with pandan leaf table decorations. I was offered the chance to smell mint leaves and I could have won an Oscar for my performance pretending that I’d never smelt it or even heard of the plant. Well, I didn’t want to hurt the enthusiastic guide’s feelings. And then they take you to the bees.
The guide will bring out a section of the hive and you’re offered the chance hold the wooden frame, crawling with the insects. As he clutched the container, the bees crawled over his knuckles and fingertips. All of our party declined the chance to hold it. So he continued trying to encourage us to have a go. He went on to advise that anyone who wished to hold the frame would need to hide their nerves because, “the bees will know if you’re worried” and could attack. Unsurprisingly there were still no takers. That’s the first time that everyone has turned down the chance to be stung, apparently.
Then it’s the café. It’s organic but don’t worry, it’s not all health food. The menu includes high quality pizza, pasta, salads, noodles and main courses for around £4 and fruit smoothies and shakes. There are also lots of unusual ice-cream flavours including durian, the smelly fruit that’s banned from public places in Singapore! The view from the café, out across the ocean, is sublime. Around fifty tables are spread out on a tree-shaded, wooden deck jutting out over the cliffs and beach a hundred feet below. I tucked in to my fancy salad, trying to forget this is an earthquake prone area. You can eat for under £4. Try the delicious peanut butter and mango smoothie or refreshing lemongrass drink – both under £1.50.
And, other than diving, that is all you can do on Panglao until the developers move in. And they are starting to build. Currently it’s all about the beach.
You can understand how some hopes are pinned on a new airport because it’s not easy getting here. You have to fly from London to Manila where you change for the short flight to Tagbilaran. Best price is around £500 for the 13-hour flight. The last leg will be a 30-minute ride on one of these trikes across a bridge to Pangloa Island. It will cost less than £5 and you’ll spend the entire journey looking back along the road, following every pothole, to make sure your luggage hasn’t been bumped off the roof.
If you’ve tried Tenerife and Thailand and want a new destination to discover with cheap food, affordable hotels, guaranteed sunshine and a chance to dive, Pangloa could be for you. Comfortable mid-range hotel rooms with air conditioning (a necessity here) are around £30 or US$42 a night. I stayed in two separate places and both were large hotels filled with boxy, characterless rooms. But you don’t go there to stay inside, do you?
While the sun worshippers and snorkelers counted the minutes before the next beachside happy hour, I started preparing my next Philippines trip. I’ll be driving to the adjacent island of Bohol to see a spectacular view, which UNESCO is considering for their World Heritage List – dozens of small mountains that resemble chocolates!