The awakening for Backpacking Philippines happened while traveling Indochina last summer. Whilst I recognised how traveling to other countries afforded me perspectives that I wouldn’t have otherwise felt in my own backyard, I also realised that I was exploring to find experiences that resembled the familiarity of home.
So when Matthijs, a Dutch backpacker— whom I shared one too many bottles of beer with— asked if I was keen to show him around the Philippines, I cancelled all other travel plans and jumped at the chance. What he didn’t know was, I was just as much of a tourist as he was.
BAGUIO – SAGADA
Our adventure began at a bus terminal in Sampaloc, Manila. From there, we took a six-hour land trip to Baguio, a city where villages hung on the hips of mountain ranges.
At twilight, we strolled around Session Road, cheeks with hints of scarlet from the cold. Amused at the lilt of the Ilocano tongue, we combed the markets for the crowd, chomping on street food in between. As the night deepened, we holed up in an acoustic bar called Bohemian and drowned sorrows, imagined and otherwise, in beer.
A decision borne out of the night prior’s drunken conversation led us to Sagada the next day. Charming and nostalgic, the town beckoned my poetry: I just had to be there.
Happy to be dragged to my exploits, Matthijs gamely trekked the jungles with me— to chase waterfalls, spot hanging coffins and watch sunrises before seas of clouds.
But our most dauntless adventure of all was spelunking and abseiling between caves with nothing but ungloved hands and bare feet. Albeit a physical feat, surviving the 4-hour Cave Connection was a real test of courage and strength of character. I, particularly, feel braver since.
BATAD – BANAUE
Read: Batad-Banaue Travel Guide
Riding on top of a jeepney may not be news to daredevils. But riding on top of a jeepney traversing through the deadly Halsema Highway was what we did. Keeping to our YOLO branding, we kept at it all the way to Banaue, and even to Batad.
When not avoiding live wires, we revelled in the landscapes: rice terraces, mountain ranges and cliff faces. We were also immersed in a culture so intact, and in a history that stood on the feet of diligence and bravery.
For a few days, we stayed at a 100 year-old hut in a village fronting 2000 year-old rice terraces. There, we tramped through deeper into the woods, and higher into the mountains. We saw more waterfalls and caught more sunsets.
There was no beer, shame. But regardless of the time of the day, there was always an oversupply of rice wine.
Read: El Nido Travel Guide
In stark contrast to our week in the hinterlands, an overnight bus to Manila and a morning flight to Puerto Princesa took us to the beaches of Palawan.
Upon learning that a jaunt to the Underground River won’t be possible until the next day, we crossed Puerto Princesa off our list. But that also meant we had to continue the journey for five more hours to the beachfront haven of El Nido.
Where I got the energy to survive the commute, I didn’t know. But if there was ever such a thing as a power bank for humans, I would have very gladly plugged my whole self in.
El Nido was the lover worth dumping everyone else for. Three days became six, and it still wasn’t enough.
We hopped between islands, snorkelled in lagoons, held picnic lunches in deserted mounds of white sand and drank nights away under the tutelage of French bartenders, who have found home in my country.
In one of the boat trips, a common love for boisterous laughter forged an instant friendship between us and a trio of very fun-loving Pinoys. Eventually, and very willingly so, they shared my honour of entertaining our foreign friends, staging one big showdown of local hospitality.
Read: Coron Travel Guide
Coron was an altogether different ballgame. Whilst El Nido’s charm dwelt on rock formations jutting out from cerulean seas, Coron tucked entire kingdoms underwater.
Having had the privilege to snorkel in Kayangan and Barracuda alone was already worth the 9-hour arduous boat ride from El Nido. But to add shipwreck diving and hammock-lounging in a private island to the equation? No price tag could ever be put on that.
The nights, meanwhile, were a class of its own. Traveling with a French couple, we brought the party atmosphere of wild El Nido to sleepy Coron. On one occasion, we got wasted over happy-hour rum coke and donned on a random shop’s mascot costume. We were too drunk to find out if we ever made it to local news, but I remember stopping traffic, running around town as a green gecko.
Read: Cebu Sinulog Travel Guide
Just in time for the Sinulog Festival, we flew to Cebu from Coron to cap off our month-long vagabonding around the country. There, we met up with other wayfarers who were also in town for the weekend shindig.
Out of all stops, Cebu was the only place I’ve ever been to before, so I made sure to plate up a generous helping of Filipino hospitality. For four days, we barely slept in the name of fun and mayhem.
By the end of the trip, Matthijs and I felt we’ve out-YOLO-ed ourselves, and spent our last few days in Cebu looking back at our travels.
In one of our conversations, he told me that Philippines should no longer be lumped in general terms (ie., Asians) internationally; that Philippines is Filipino, awesome enough to stand on its own.
“You aren’t even third-world. You have first-world cities and first-world people, where even the most primitive of tribes can speak decent English and even the poorest of communities are happy.”
I sat there, bereft of speech, startled by the reckoning that it was actually me, who have been shown around in my own country.
From the eyes of a foreigner, I saw the Philippines again for the first time. It was beautiful. Perhaps, the most in the universe. As a Filipino, I realise right then and there, that it was my duty to open my country’s doors for all to see.