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.

An Urban Trek through Seoul

The road that led uphill insisted we were just over a kilometre from N Seoul Tower. The other seemed to wind like a loose grey curl of hair, down the western shoulder of Namasan Mountain.

’Do you need direction?’ An old man warmed to us. It was our first day in the capital of South Korea. We were just looking to have an easy day in Itaewon checking out the fabled antique street. Counting it as only three stops on the subway map, I was coerced into walking. We mimed uncertainly towards N Seoul Tower, the great half way mark of our unmapped path. The road we had mercilessly brought us high over a steep green ridge. We agreed Itaewon was still only three stops away and scampered on, deeper into the thick city park.

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So close yet so far…

‘The air is more fresh up here.’ Our new old friend’s eyes gleamed. ‘Where are you from?’ We parted with our narrative. ‘Scotland!’ he exclaimed. ‘I have been there once, but only to Ullapool’. Distracted by the lively fellow, we followed his footsteps. ‘Itaewon… yes, this way!’ He directed us down the long curl, explaining the virtues of city green spaces. Our friend, for half of the year, lives in Orange County, USA dealing in rental estate. In America he misses the easy freedom of the outdoors. Particularly freedom supplemented by well manicured paths.‘Do you know what this is for’ he asked, pointing at the yellow paving stones. ‘They are for the blind. cars are not allowed here, it’s very safe. It is a park for everyone’.

He walked us a couple of kilometres down that road. Stopping at another gap in the bushes, he reached into his pocket, pulling out a scrap of paper. He started to scribble. ‘You see, if you followed the road that way then it will take you 20 minutes longer. But this is a short cut…’ he began to ascend the tight wooden staircase. We popped out on the other side, at an identical junction. ‘I must leave you now.’ he burst, suddenly. ‘I am old and the stairs are too much for me.’ He continued ‘it’s not so steep. This path takes you to Seoul Tower. When you get there, just walk over to the other side, there are three paths. Take the one on the right, follow your eyes to the Grand Hyatt.’

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First impressions

We parted. The directions were intentionally simple. The stairs took us much deeper into the luscious hillside. The mellow steps escalated quickly, morphing into a painful succession of Escher paintings, punctuated by steep muscular gradients. Not so steep, he said. Our brisk footsteps slowed to a clomping crawl just as the trees began to break. A swarm of reflective windows began to bloom before us. We clambered on. Beads of sweat were briefly birthed on my chin, slipped, and splashed on my toes. My trusty Birkenstocks campaigned uselessly against the rubble beneath my feet. I was just glad one of us had brought a bottle of water.

We reached a plateau supporting a small wooden deck. A few older Koreans sat on stone benches. Each carried a small rucksack containing their lunch. They chirped quietly, pecking their food. We blundered on scene like lumbering yetis, underdressed, dripping in sweat, and fighting thirst. Rather than suffer the embarrassment, we aped gracelessly over to the remaining steps.

The end was in sight. A new opening revealed a new road, high above the city of Seoul. A chain of electric buses swanned along the final hundred meters leading to the N Seoul Tower. The tourists disembarked. They buzzed around in a haze of selfie sticks, bemoaning the heat, unaware of the soaking cretins that walked among them. Together we pushed on over the final hurdle. A family marched downhill with ice cream trophies, the hard earned spoils of their 50m ascent.

On top of that viridian oasis, set between a doughnut ring of skyscrapers, we came upon an observatory. Through the window, two men mended the paintwork suspended, mid-air, by thick cables. Behind them tiny cars hustled between glossy bricks and mortar. The even smaller humans bustled through a great silver ant farm. The noon sun had begun to wane, casting stretched shadows across the city. We slurped on ice creams bigger than our fists. A mirage of peace blanketed the city. Over three hours since we first set off from Myeongdong, we arrived at the half way point of our ‘three-stop’ pilgrimage. And, it was up there that we fell in love.

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View from the top

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Love Locks at N Seoul Tower

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Seoul Food: Top 5 Eats of South Korea

My arrival in Korea was a gastronomic breath of fresh air. Seoul has an incredible range of treats on offer, although is bit of a vegetarian’s nightmare, focussing mainly on meat and rice in various forms. Each meal is served with a hearty portion of kimchi and various side dishes, often pickled vegetables. Here’s a run down of the best five things I ate in Seoul.

Dumpling soup

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One big dumpling, one tiny bowl

I was starving. I’d skipped breakfast and at 2:30pm was beginning to regret it. I strode into the first open restaurant. Having tried some handmade soup dumplings the day before, I was excited for more. Spotting a delectable photo on the wall, I ordered. Minutes later I was greeted by a portable stove. I’m Asian enough to know this only ever means great things. Arriving at the table was a massive steel pot loaded with the biggest dumplings I have ever seen, perched perilously on top of a garden of vegetables, simmering in a belting kimchi broth. Served with the best kimchi I have ever tasted. Gorgeously garlicky, and piquant to taste. Soup, only better.

Oodles of noodles

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Ali enjoying his cold noodles

My love of noodles stems from my time in Japan. On hot days there are few things better to eat than a refreshing bowl of cold noodles. The buckwheat noodles in Seoul have a chewier texture and have a glossiness that Japanese soba generally doesn’t have. The broth and toppings were kept simple, allowing the noodles to do the talking. Partnered with a spicy bean paste and julienned vegetables, this dish is a summer treat. I ate a few kinds of noodles in Seoul, thin wheat flour ones, thick knife cut ones, all of them are awesome.

Chicken and beer

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Too. Much.

Chicken and beer is a winning combination anywhere, but never have I been to a place where entire streets are dedicated to the cause. The place I stumbled into wasn’t quite as outstanding as I had anticipated, but, you know, it’s chicken and beer. There’s little not to like. The chicken was marinaded in something intensely sugary, which post-fry caramelised and was left to perspire into the basket. But the thick crisp rice coating was bone crunchingly good, a great entry point to the serendipitous moist chicken. The portion size (there was only one) was stupendous. One and a half chickens had been butchered for the cause. I never ever imagined there could be too much chicken. But Seoul beat me. Extra points awarded for a solid range of tasty beer, and remember, Pale Ales are particularly good for degreasing.

Bibimbap

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Bad photo. Couldn’t wait to tuck in…

Undoubtedly South Korea’s most famous dish is bibimbap. Previously I’d only seen the dish served in a heated, heavy set stone pot. Bibimbap consists of a steamed rice base, topped with a plethora of vegetables, raw and cooked. This is topped with spicy red bean paste and an egg. I opted for a metal bowl serve; it was too hot for a heated stone pot. This one was topped with a gorgeous sunny side up-er, and resembled a salad more than a hot pot. Just what I needed in the heat.

Chicken gal bi

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Definite winner

I try not to go back to the same restaurant more than once, unless I really need Wi-Fi from them. But in a country where free Wi-Fi is almost a requisite for a building permit, I had didn’t need to do anything twice. But there was one restaurant we went to twice in Seoul, specialising in chicken gal bi. Much like Korean barbecue, we were seated at a table with a large hot plate. The vegetables; cabbage, pumpkin and onion, were fried first. The chicken followed, marinaded in a wonderful spicy red bean sauce. The staff do the cooking for you, all you need to do is don your bib and relax. The gal bi was delicious, but noted that most tables around us were enjoying a rice based dish. Curious, a couple of days later we returned. The chicken and rice were fried together in the same bean sauce on the same hot plate, but at the end a layer of shredded mozzarella was buried in the rice. The cheese melted and provided a creamy gooey contrast to the full on flavours in the rice. Delicious.

By now you’ve possibly noticed an lack of Korean BBQ on my list. I really enjoyed BBQ but it wasn’t one of the great experiences I had in Seoul. I have had barbecue of that calibre before. Contraversially I’d even say that (for me) nothing will beat barbecue at the Sapporo Beer Garden in Japan. Flavours are more important than hunks of meat, and there are better elements of Seoul cuisine which have much more going on.