Thoughts from paradise: Palawan, Philippines

I’ve been struggling to decide what I want to say about the Philippines. I visited two places. Palawan island which is a long strip of jungle fronted by golden sands jutting out to the west, and Manila which is everything an antithesis ought to be. Ever since I built the Philippines into my Asia itinerary, everyone and their pet gerbil had whispered the name Palawan. By no unlikely accident I flew almost directly from Manila to Palawan after arriving in the Philippines.

I had been promised beauty unsurpassed and ‘the last frontier’ of this nation of islands. I was not disappointed. The last frontier is the nickname of Honda Bay, a curved speck of glory which had been discovered by tourists more than a decade ago. The place which stirs most excitement now is El Nido to the north, a sleepier version of the long famed Ha Long Bay of Viet Nam. A cacophony of lime stone secrets, scattered throughout a sheltered bay. I flew into Palawan only a few days before a typhoon struck to the east. Caged indoors by rain, I had plenty of time to think.

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The quiet beaches of a little known island

One morning we made a break for the beach. We lucked out that it was to be the only few hours of sun we would experience that week. The outline of my parrot bikini that was burnt onto my torso in just under three hours serves as a continuing reminder of turquoise clear waves clattering effortlessly over toasted sand. Idyllic, and almost comically so. Even the rain was beautiful. Low clouds strayed into the bay on whim, obscuring the nearby islands. The rain which caressed coconut shell plant pots, brought with it a cool breeze. The real beauty of Palawan, however, lay within in the audacity with which the people manage every day life. Keen to make a living for their children, many work hours unheard of in the western world, boasting a smile throughout.

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Tourism took a dive in Palawan over a decade ago after a highly publicised kidnapping took place from a private island beach resort. Terrified tourists abandoned plans for Palawan, leaving an economic blank on an island whose main industry is tourism. Recently, and exponentially from what I gather, recovery is underway. Prior to arriving I was informed that El Nido may now claim 24 hour electricity, although the reality is questionable. Electricity was intermittent on many evenings, and people often continued to use more primitive yet reliable means to conduct business. And though tourism is witnessing a resurgence, yet many aspects of the industry don’t appear to benefit from investment. Everyone peddles the same four tours and basic trinkets, unaware that the safety of sticking to what you know creates a problem with over saturation.

A lot of people are coming to Palawan. There’s accommodation and food to suit all budgets from five star resorts to basic fan room guesthouses; though it would seem that budget tourism sector is seeing the greatest expansion. There is even a boutique hostel being built just a five minute stroll from the beach front. There are a variety of food options, many of which are Western owned, creating an artificial dimension of diversity. The most popular spot in town appears to be run by a German. Her staff are polite yet inattentive. An indication that the western attitude towards hospitality seems to be a pollutive force.

I enjoyed my time in Palawan, though I can’t say that tourism has been as beneficial as it should have been. I spoke to a number of tricycle drivers about the situation. One driver told me that the average woman in Palawan still earns only 150 pesos a week. I eat that for breakfast. I dare not ask what the Western owned businesses pay their staff, but their attitude tells me that beyond being capable of waiting tables there is little onus to improve or excel.

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Though money is coming in, some parts along the beach front strip remain derelict.

The tricycle drivers face an uphill struggle. I didn’t realise until my last day that most of the tricycles are rented. Of that 50 pesos the driver charged you, much of that is given up for tricycle rent. If one wanted to buy one outright, the steel carriage would cost around 30,000 pesos. That’s roughly equivalent to what I was given for pocket money over one year. To buy the bike, it would cost 100,000 pesos. That commutes to 2000 jobs worth 50 pesos each. That is not including bike rental, petrol, nor living costs. The tricyclist is essentially priced out of improving his means to make a better living. One driver admitted that his home is two hours drive from El Nido so he often sleeps in the tricycle instead of retiring in the evening. With so much competition on the streets, missing a couple of jobs is not an option.

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It’s gonna be a long night

One driver picked Ali and I up and took us to the post office. I waited in the carriage with him. He is only two years older than me. We talked about his three children. Initially cheerful, his evident exhaustion began to escape, chained to his words. The burden of his world was worn his shoulders alone. He works day and night because he is ‘young and strong’ he said, and because he can. But he could not decide whether to stay in Palawan or to leave his family and work elsewhere. Not enough opportunities have been created in paradise for people like him. ‘I hope you come back to Palawan ma’am, I hope you come back and have a child’ he said. ‘People come here and they make a child because they are relaxed and very happy.’ Though they are the reason he never sleeps, he doesn’t see his family as a burden. They are a reminder of the happiness which created them, the source of his strength.

Many travellers feel disappointment when they are met by rising numbers flocking to their secret spots. Others talk about eco tourism as though locals need educating about the environment they have inhabited for generations. There are some penny pinchers who feel the need to coerce guesthouses into putting up with their shit for even less money. How is this fair tourism? If you’re disappointed that your sweet spots are no longer so sweet, that the exploitation of habitats is not inextricably linked to supply and demand, or that your budget should reflect the life of a local, you need to think again. Think about who you are and who you’d like to be. Then think about why so many locals still struggle to pay their bills.