I’ve travelled 11,300km to see mountains that resemble Malteser chocolates! I’m island hopping in the Southern Philippines and while that might sound quite glamorous, in reality it means being driven in a sidecar on the side of a motorbike across a short bridge. I’ve been on the small beach holiday island of Panglao and I’ve crossed over to Bohol, where I’ve booked a day-long private taxi tour.
I know it sounds a bit grand having your own cab driver but it only costs £35 for the whole day. There are plenty of companies operating coach tours but they follow a set itinerary and there are places that don’t interest me – I’d really rather not go and view a massive python, visit another craft market or see the Blood Compact Shrine again. I’d already seen that ‘so called’ attraction. It sounds more interesting than it is. It’s a statue that marks the place where Europeans and Filipinos first met and cut themselves as part of a ritual. There’s nothing to see and knocking that off your itinerary gives you another fifteen minutes in bed. Grab it where you can!
I started in Tagbilaran City. You won’t see the town pictured on any chocolate boxes. It’s ugly, concrete, congested and grubby. I’ll never get a job at their tourist office, will I? The museum costs a few pennies but you may just as well save them. I always try to find something positive to say, so… their air-conditioning is really good! That’s the best I can do. Parts of it resemble a last-minute school history project rather than a well-thought out and curated collection. They also followed the bizarre and bureaucratic practice of asking people to sign in with their full address. I encountered that a few times in the Philippines.
Heading out from Tagbilaran, the taxi skirted the coast. The best beaches are either much further out to the east of Bohol Island or back on Panglao Island where I’ve been staying. Much of the shoreline leaving Tagbilaran is mudflats or mangrove swamp. The taxi continued on winding roads through thick green forests although every few kilometres the tall trees thinned out to rolling fertile countryside, with small towns of wooden homes and roadside shops and stalls brightly decorated in promotional flags and banners.
We’d been driving for around one hour from Tagbilaran when the first of the unusual mounds appeared. I had chosen Bohol Island specifically to see these ‘Chocolate Hills.’ There are 1,700 of the round hills rising to between 50 and 100 metres in height. There’s nothing else like them on the planet and that’s why they are being considered for UNESCO status. As the cab pulled into the visitor centre, and I got ready to climb to the viewing platform, traders touted water and shouted their effective sales pitches through the open window. “Water, sir? 214 steps to the top.”
I climbed the stairway along with the rest of the throng. The site was badly affected by an earthquake in 2013 and parts of the railing were still missing or wonky. I took in the panoramic view of the mounds, looking like giant, green Maltesers half buried in the ground as far as the eye could see.
Next, I was heading for a river cruise. I knew this next stop would be touristy and I wasn’t wrong. My heart sank when the cab pulled up outside the departure hall for the Loboc River cruise. There were hundreds of people queuing, waiting for their chance to board one of the open-sided river-craft. A flotilla of ferries take passengers on the 60-minute cruise up and down the river. It was very hot and humid so I resigned myself to a long sit in the cooler, air-conditioned waiting hall. After five minutes I could feel the wonderful artificial chill slowly drying the perspiration on my forehead and arms. And then, with a loud cracking noise, bang, the power went off. Power cuts are common in this part of the world. There were possibly 200 people in that room and after 15 minutes it was sweltering. I considered bailing out when my cab driver, who had been chatting with one of the attendants, beckoned me. It seems that he pulled some strings, which enabled me to jump the queue. I thought about the morality of what I was doing. Then I thought about how hot I was and didn’t give it a second thought. Minutes later I was on the cruise, tucking in to the pretty decent help-yourself buffet, rice and noodle based dishes. There were meat, fish and veggie options. Some people went back for all three!
As you know the milk prices are controlled in Britain, coffee prices are regulated in Italy. I have wondered whether there’s beer price regulation in the Philippines. In every public place a bottle of locally-brewed San Miguel costs 60 pesos, just under £1. Even on a boat, where you’re a captive audience. Fifteen minutes later we stopped at a wharf alongside the river where school children dressed in yellow and lime colours sang us three songs accompanied by adults on guitars, banjos and ukuleles. The kids then performed a traditional Filipino fire dance routine for us – leaping back and forth over moving bamboo poles. It was hopscotch meets the sabre dance. At the end of their programme they chanted a message of thanks and sang good-bye, like a Filipino version of the Von Trapps, and we were off. The next riverboat was waiting to pull in for the kids to start the 10-minute show all over again.
There wasn’t any wildlife to see from the boat but the river water looked amazing. It appeared bright green, the colour of Fairy liquid, due to the dense, overhanging growth. The boat stopped as we made our U-turn at a set of small waterfalls. As I took out my camera to capture this scene of peace and tranquillity, I glanced upwards. 200 feet above my head a set a wires were stretched. With a loud shriek, two women wrapped up in what looked like straightjackets whizzed overhead. It was a zip wire. The boat turned back and music started up. We chugged backed to the embarkation point with musical accompaniment from a singer and live band. The boats seem to run on a set playlist of Abba and Gloria Gaynor and that drove a party of fifty schoolteachers, who I was sharing the boat with, wild.
The next stop was the Butterfly Farm. I found this a relatively lame attraction compared to similar wildlife centres I have visited around the world. The tour was rushed and I only saw two different types of butterflies flying around in the enclosure. The highlight wasn’t an insect – it was the utot-utot plant. I know this is childish but the guide’s translation of the name – it means farting flower – did bring out the schoolboy in me. In case you were wondering it smells of mint. Not what I had expected, I’m pleased to say.
All of the tours will take you to a curious attraction – the manmade forest. It is a 2km stretch of tall, almost vertical mahogany trees. They were planted by villagers around 50 years ago to combat the effects of flooding and erosion, which followed previous deforestation in the area. It seems that everyone visiting wanted to risk life-and-limb, dodging the cars and buses haring around the bends in these dark woods, to take a selfie whilst standing in the middle of the road.
Next we switched from mahogany to bamboo for my big personal challenge. Back in the 1940s two parallel bridges were slung across a tributary to the Loboc River at a settlement called Sevilla. It was designed to move livestock across the water. Now it’s full of visitors who pay 20 pesos, or around 30p, to be terrified as they wobble along the 40-metre length of the Hanging Bridge.
Now I don’t like walking over water and I also hate heights so this provided a test for my nerves. I did cross over but muttered some choice words under my breath about the Korean teenagers in front of me, who kept stopping to take complicated selfies involving their party in different poses and combinations. I just wanted to get to the other side. Stop making the experience last longer, I grumbled. On the return leg a photographer tried to flog me a picture of my crossing. I have no idea why he thought I’d want to relive this moment or own a photo of my fear-ridden face. Back in the cab, the taxi driver told me that the bamboo is regularly replaced but I couldn’t help notice all of the gaps in the ‘planks’ as I walked over the swaying, sagging, creaking mass. At one point I thought my foot was going to go through a hole. To add to my experience the wooded hillside opposite the bridge also appeared to be on fire. How flammable is bamboo?
Tarsier monkeys are native to Bohol. You’ll see their image on t-shirts, postcards and tourism tat. And my next stop was the Tarsier Sanctuary at Corella. These ever-so-cute nocturnal monkeys are tiny, just 4-5 inches long. They are even more distinctive because of their massive eyes, which makes them highly sensitive to flash photography. At the enclosure, signs warned visitors against using flashes and encouraged silence. That’s because these creatures get stressed when their sleep is disrupted. When they are stressed, some of them commit suicide by banging their heads repeatedly. Horrible isn’t it?
That’s what I wanted to do to the idiots who were calling and shouting at them. One of the tiny tarsiers, which was half-dozing whilst clinging on a tree, visibly recoiled at that. I came away with mixed feelings. It was amazing to see these beautiful and rare creatures but I did feel that I was supporting a sideshow without the protections you would expect. They could have had marshals preventing people from disturbing the tarsiers or used one-way glass.
In my view, Bohol is best experienced as a trip from the neighbouring island of Panglao, where the beaches and resorts are. The two islands are linked by road and all of the attractions that I have featured on Bohol are within 90 minutes drive of Panglao. Whether you take a coach or taxi tour, there’s an established circuit that allows you to see them all in one day.
How to get to Panglao
It’s a 13-hour direct flight from London to Manila on Philippines Airlines, with a 75-minute connection to Tagbilaran airport on Bohol island. You can do that for around £500 return. A 30-minute taxi drive to Alona Beach won’t cost more than £10. Accommodation is cheap and a standard hotel room with air conditioning will set you back around £30 a night.