I’m never at my best at 5 o’clock in the morning. But here I am, bumping along the streets of Dumaguete in the Philippines, clinging to the seat of an open-sided bus as the sun tries to poke up over the houses and shops flashing by. Why? I’ve been promised leaping dolphins and a community on stilts in the sea.
Okay, so the Philippines are a long way to come from Europe. But if you’re prepared to travel the fourteen hours from London to Manila and then take an additional hour-long internal flight, you will find that your money also travels much further here on Negros Island in the central south of the country. When you switch pounds for pesos, you can enjoy luxury living – a good restaurant meal costs around £6. It’s the low cost of living here that has attracted so many European and American relocators.
Gordon Mckissock is one of those. He moved from Canada to start a successful tour company, PhilCan Tours. Gordon told there are 4,000 expats in Dumaguete, a city of 120,0000. I don’t think the foreigners have changed the city much. Dumaguete still offers a taste of the real Philippines – cluttered, chaotic and colourful. Look up and you’ll see the jumble of electric and phone wires – hundreds of black cables twisted together and sagging between poles. I thought it was tough untangling my Christmas lights!
You’ll have to ride in a ‘trike.’ They’re part of the Philippines experience. It’s a covered motorbike with a sort of welded-on sidecar in which you and up to two other passengers can sit. It can be a cosy ride for those with, lets say, a fuller figure so make sure you’re travelling with a loved one or at least a close friend. They’re darting around everywhere – thousands of them. In the centre of town there’s even a ‘trike’ fire engine on display. The fire service roll call would have been shorter than Trumpton’s – they’d reach Pugh and Pugh but be lucky to squeeze on Barney McGrew…
Trikes reach about 30mph, which is fine in a city where vendors meander between the motors to make sales before the traffic moves on. Owners personalise them in bold colours. Most proudly state the name of the operator’s wife or girlfriend. There are lots of good catholic names scrawled or painted on the bodywork – Maria, Rosa, Theresa. Some also contain the names of saints. The Philippines is a devout Catholic nation and all around Dumaguete you’ll see billboards quoting bible verse. “It is 95% Christian although there are some Muslim areas too,” Gordon told me. “There is a lot of value placed on the church but it’s all respectful. Families are large and stick together here.”
Dumaguete’s number one attraction has a religious connection too. A city centre tower was built in 1811 to house bells to warn of invading pirates. The name Dumaguete comes from Daguit, which means ‘to snatch.’ You can climb the landmark, which stands on the skyline like a 30m high grey, coralstone lighthouse. Underneath there’s a grotto with some religious statues. Women sell incense and candles outside.
But Gordon says there’s a lot see away from the frenetic activity of the town. “A big draw is Po Island,” said Gordon. “It’s a world-class wildlife sanctuary and it’s popular for diving and snorkelling. You can also swim with whale sharks in Oslob, at nearby Cebu Island, go on a tour to see waterfalls and bathe in hot springs.”
I boarded one of Gordon’s open-sided minibuses, a ‘jeepny,’ for the 28-mile ride to the port of Bais. The journey took us through a succession of small towns straddling the coastal highway. Men were carrying large bottles of water home on their shoulders for the morning washing and cooking. And the distinctive and pleasant smell of wood smoke filled the air.
An hour later we were in the countryside and driving alongside paddy fields, providing another unique aroma. I’d never smelt rice ‘in the field’ before but for a few minutes, the scent in the air took me back to school dinner days. The jeepny filled with the sweet, familiar smell of rice pudding!
We passed mangrove swamps and sugar plantations and 90 minutes later, we were on the long concrete wharf at Bais. I removed my shoes and socks and waded into the water, to board the wooden trimaran. The small eight-seater was fashioned out of bamboo poles bound together with plastic ties and with a plywood deck. A yellow canopy strung across the top provided shade.
Tour guide Jong’s assistant pushed off using a huge bamboo pole, like a Philippine gondolier, and the engine started up. We headed out into the bay and 45-minutes later there was an excited scream!
There was a dolphin. Then lots of them. Maybe half a dozen were teasing us by offering just a brief view of their dorsal fins. Then, just what everyone wanted, the group leapt a few feet from the water into the air. There were another four sightseeing boats on the sea near us and they soon latched on to our dolphin discovery, speeding over to get a closer look. Whether this disturbs the dolphins or provides them with some ‘hide and seek’ fun, I don’t know. But the dolphins soon vanished. Minutes later, they were back, 200 yards over on the starboard side. The show resumed.
Have you ever had the urge to seek solitude on holiday? There are different ways of achieving it, depending on your budget. If you dream of being stranded on your own desert island, watching the tides rise and fall and the sun set and rise in the knowledge that nobody will disturb you, I might have found the perfect place for you.
As part of the trip out of Bais, our trimaran took us to a sandbar in the bay. Standing 25ft above the water were four platforms, topped with single-storey wood and thatch cottages. The steel legs holding them up made them look like oilrigs. I got off the boat and waded through the thigh-high, warm water to the small concrete platform on the sand. We’d timed it well. The sandbar is completely dry twice a day in the low tide but the water also rises above head height.
Wooden steps led the way to the accommodation above. On entering the simple two-room unit I found an elderly man brushing the deck. Tour guide Jong had accompanied me up the stairs and he translated my questions for the caretaker, who couldn’t speak English. The unit had a viewing deck and bedroom. A bucket on a rope provided the ensuite facilities and although fish could be caught and prepared, there was no cooking facility. So self-catering guests would have sushi at sunset!
Whether you stay overnight or wade out onto the sandbar for an hour, standing upright in the middle of the ocean, seeing starfish on the sandy bottom and sea urchins darting between your legs is a special experience.
Our final boat stop was at Talabong Mangrove Forest and Bird Sanctuary. It’s the largest remaining mangrove forest on the island and a very long wooden boardwalk leads you from the small boat dock, over and above the swamps to the heart of the mangrove. After years of destruction, the locals are now realising how important these habitats are as nurseries for fish. My interest piqued when Jong told me that monkeys live in the reserve. Sadly we didn’t see any.
PhilCan Tours offer a variety of trips around Negros Island, including my dolphin watching tour, as well as diving with whale sharks, fishing and mountain biking experiences. You can book on their website at philtraveltours.com.
I stayed at the Santa Monica Beach Club. The resort is a bumpy twenty-minute ride from Dumaguete airport, down a long, pothole-filled lane. And it’s got one of the biggest outdoor pools I’ve seen. The hotel feels safe and there is on-site security with officials patrolling all night. The hotel also provides free insect repellent made the traditional way from lemongrass. It works – a nice touch.
The hotel fronts onto a marine sanctuary, and hotel manager JD told me it’s a great area to go kayaking. The hotel offers an arts and heritage tour on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, where guests can experience the culture and see the arts and handicrafts of Negros Oriental. JD told me the best time to visit is between March and May. After that it’s the rainy season.
JD also suggested I should go into Dumaguete for the town’s special dessert, silvanas –butter-cream sandwiched between two cashew-meringue wafers and then frozen. Too sweet for me! But I did enjoy the hotel’s freshly caught squid, beautifully grilled and served with a tasty peanut satay sauce and white rice.
Following the relatively crowded city of Dumaguete, the nearby island of Siquijor (pronounced sik-ee-hor) seems like a step back in time. The island is fairly undeveloped with around 100,000 people on its 130 square miles.
The ferry journey from Dumaguete is an experience in itself. Filipinos love bureaucracy and travel operators are neither professional nor organised by Western standards. You’ll queue (in 35°C heat) to buy your ferry ticket. You’ll then need to join a second queue to buy a port departure card – less than 25p. And yes – right next to it is a third queue to hand in your port card and ticket! You also need to accept that there’s no concept of European health and safety practices. As you board the ferry watch out because lorries reverse into the hold approximately a metre from where the queue is standing. Hold your breath if you don’t like diesel fumes!
Gordon’s company also operates tours and excursions on Siquijor and I was met at the ferry dock by tour guide June with his trike, ready for a round-the-island tour. First stop was in the leafy town of Lazi. It’s an important religious site in the Philippines, with both a huge convent and the wood and stone San Isidro Labrador church. Its appearance is distinctive with a red-painted corrugated iron belltower, dome and roof.
Now, before I go any further, you need to know that Siquijor has a certain reputation in the Philippines. For centuries, the island has been considered to have magical healing powers, linked to both religion and witchcraft. Some locals claim that the siting of the massive convent at Lazi, which doubled as a hospital, is proof of the island’s special powers.
Like all gripping folklore tales, these stories have been shared for generations. They started in the time of the Spanish conquest. Siquijor was on a major sea-trading route and sailors who became ill during their voyage were put ashore. Some men defied the odds and recovered. That possibly fuelled gossip about islanders’ special powers. Locals were also keen to spread these stories to deter would-be invaders and pirates.
But local politician, Ling Alvarez, is convinced that there’s something special about the island and that’s why the huge convent was built. “There are more than 7,000 islands throughout the Philippines and 20,000 in Asia,” Ling explained. “And yet the church built a 134 room convent, the biggest in Asia, on this tiny island. There is something in the ‘pueblo,’ something in the silence, that makes priests who come here get well. It shows that this is the healing island of Asia.”
Ling introduced me to his famous son, Dingdong, who has been a boy band member and has served as the island’s vice-governor. Dingdong also thinks that a stay in Siquijor can improve your health, but he takes a more rational view of the reasons. “When people talk about healing on this island I think it is in a holistic sense,” he told me. “You can relax and escape from all the stress and hustle and bustle of city life. There is a kind of healing here. But we’ve heard of people who have been treated. The local healers have been using herbs for centuries and know how to concoct these so-called medicines to help the body heal.”
Dingdong, wearing his politician’s hat, said he also hoped that the island can be promoted as a wellbeing destination. He appeared genuinely concerned that the stories of supernatural activity would affect tourism. “The island has that image of being a mysterious, mystic island known for sorcery and witchcraft. And historically you can see why people thought that. I want to show there is more to the island. It’s a beautiful, unspoilt place. People are realising that now.”
But it’s proving hard to shake off the reputation – not least in the Philippines themselves. Hotel worker Amy moved to Siquijor ten years ago. She told me when she returns to see her family in Cebu, her friends are especially nice to her because they’re worried she’s learned sorcery skills in her new home. Seriously!
Some of her friends even tried to dissuade her from moving there. It wasn’t helped by a 1980’s supernatural movie, set on the island, which is often shown on Filipino television. “It’s called The Mystic Island. It’s not nice. The reputation of the island is damaged,” Amy told me. “People are careful around me when I return home. They say I might cast a spell!”
I stayed at a small resort called The Danish Lagoon. Its owner, 61-year-old Danish expat, Johnnie Karstensen, is convinced that local medicine men can teach Western medics a thing or two. He showed me an orange liquid, which he says has helped him with the psoriasis that has hospitalised him several times in the past. He told me a local medicine man looked at his skin and suggested a natural cure to help. “He told me to go and take the bark from this tree and cook it,” said Johnnie, “then put the water in a bottle and use it as a sponge bath. This stuff can do more in a week than a specialist skin hospital in Norway could do in ten weeks!”
It was my turn to try one of the island’s wellbeing techniques. I went back on the trike for the ten-minute ride to what locals call ‘The Enchanted Tree.’ It’s a 400-year-old balete tree, a type of fig, which appeared eerie with its thick trunk and hanging roots. A spring emerges from under it and flows into a large concrete pool, its sides formed into benches where you can sit as fish nibble at the dead skin on your feet. It’s basically a free foot spa and is said to improve your circulation by giving a micro-massage of your feet. It tickled.
It was sweltering, despite the shade of the tree and I gladly handed over the equivalent of 20p to a trader who chopped a coconut in half with a machete, and shoved a straw in it – the perfect hydrating drink in the soaring humidity.
As the trike tour continued, we passed a spring-fed swimming pool complex where kids were jumping off the bridge into the water. I was tempted to dive in to cool off.
But there was no time. My next appointment was with the healer, an island manambal, for a ‘bola-bola cleansing.’ You don’t find these healers in the Yellow Pages and the two established practitioners of this craft who lived nearby, had died recently Johnnie told me. It took some detective work by Danish Lagoon staff to locate one. Because of the potential for communication problems, Jess from the hotel accompanied me.
After riding for forty-minutes into the countryside, we reached a cluster of breezeblock cottages with plywood patches and corrugated roofs. Two tall, fair-haired, twenty-somethings – possibly Swedish backpackers – were leaving after their consultation. It felt almost like an alfresco doctor’s surgery. A 30-year-old woman, Jenny-Loo, emerged from the house carrying a glass jar, water jug and bamboo straw. She greeted me in perfect English and told me she’d been doing this since she was fourteen. Her grandfather had chosen her to carry on the tradition.
Jenny-Loo put a special, round, black stone – her granddad’s – into a jar of water. She then rubbed the jar of water around my back, face and head whilst continually blowing into the straw. On three occasions Jenny-Loo stopped and showed me that the water was clear. “That is good,” she said. Apparently when it turns cloudy it indicates a problem. I’d just got the ‘all clear.’ from the healer.
There’s hardly any tourism infrastructure or development on Siquijor. That’s part of its charm. Johnnie and his colleague Dennis took me to see a massive underground chasm. There was no sign and it’s not on the maps. The entrance was part-covered by overgrowth. Inside it looked like someone had scooped out the earth with an apple corer.
It must have been around a hundred feet down from top to bottom. You get to a plateau around three quarters of the way down, via a spiral staircase. Then you use a thick rubber rope to guide yourself down a step rock ramp to the dark stalactite-filled crevice, complete with circling bats!
Johnnie also took me to Paliton Beach, five minutes walk from his resort. It’s an idyllic expanse of white sand and palm trees with brightly painted wooden fishing boats resting above the shoreline. Local kids were playing on the beach and fishermen were cleaning the catch. I only saw two tourists.
I should also mention Johnnie’s resort, The Danish Lagoon. He created it ten years ago after his quest to find a place to settle in the Philippines ended when he arrived on the wharf at Siquijor. “I thought ‘I’m home,’” he told me, adding, “After 45 years of travelling that’s a word I rarely use.”
“The feeling you get for this island is like the first time you meet a girl – excited, nervous and scared. I had all those feelings,” he explained.
Johnnie prides himself on his logical approach to construction projects – in the past he’s built a replica Viking ship and created massive trolls for the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. At the Danish Lagoon resort Johnnie has constructed four detached single-room villas in landscaped tropical gardens sloping down to a private bay. And in a nod to his homeland, a little mermaid statue stands on top of a rock overlooking the beach. Unusually, the buildings are eight-sided, designed to survive hurricanes. The angles apparently spread the impact of a direct hit. Very clever!
The double beds in the room are suspended from the ceiling on thick metal rods – another Johnnie engineering project – to make it easy to clean and stop creepy crawlies getting into the bed. Johnnie’s resort is very friendly. With an all-night security guard and accommodating, relaxed staff, The Danish Lagoon feels very safe, but then the island is considerably safer than many Philippines destinations anyway.
“The islanders are unbelievably friendly people,” said Johnnie. “If you are on a motorbike and you get a flat tyre, you can guarantee that within ten minutes there’ll be at least five people around you offering help. The islanders are still not ruined by the rest of the world. The world spins round but this island is closer to the edge.”
Already, after 24 hours on Siquijor, I’d appreciated the slower pace of life, the safety and lack of congestion. I’d noticed the friendly waving and hellos of locals as I passed by too. It’s an oasis of calm in a country that can be chaotic and confusing for many foreigners. And when you factor in the scenery, genuine warmth of welcome, delicious food and wonderfully comfortable accommodation you’ll find at the Danish Lagoon, you’ll probably agree that there is something quite magical about this island.
To visit Dumaguete and Siquijor, fly from London to Manila. You can get a domestic connection to Dumaguete then a ferry to Siquijor. Siquijor is also accessible by ferry from nearby Cebu and Tagbilaran.
When you get the ferry, go for the business class or air-con ticket if available. It won’t cost much more – there’s space for your legs and you won’t feel like you’ve been in an oven for the one to two-hour crossing! It’s best to buy tickets beforehand to avoid the queues – hotels and tour agents in the resorts will be able to help you with that.