January 25 – February 9, 2020
Our 2.5 weeks in the Philippines back in February now seem like it happened a lifetime ago. A lot has changed in the world since then. The Philippine government now has strict orders for a nationwide lockdown of this developing country made up of over 7,500 islands with a poor medical system and overall shaky infrastructure.
We didn’t plan our visit to the Philippines well. I think we must have been reaching a travel saturation point and were seriously procrastinating making travel arrangements for that portion of our journey. Researching travel options while traveling presented more of a chore than a joy.
Still, I was lucky to come across a great resource that helped me shape our time in the Philippines as good as it could have been done. I met a new online friend, Bee Kim, on one of the Facebook worldschooling groups. Bee pretty much did all the planning for us. She was our saving grace for this portion of our journey. She, her husband John and their two young children have been living on Palawan for the past few years, leaving the hustle and bustle of their busy professional lives in New York City for a simpler but more emotionally enriching experience in this Instagram paradise.
I have to admit that my own view of the Philippines was also the Instagram version. We were in search of picture-perfect beaches and that’s how we ended up in El Nido, Palawan that is well known in travel magazines for the “best beaches in the world”.
As soon as we landed in Manila and later on in Puerto Princesa, it was obvious that the Philippines is the least developed country that our family has been to so far. From the get-go, it was hard for me to reconcile the two completely opposite images I saw there – the Instagram type of picture-perfect view of the white sandy beaches with crystal clear waters vs. the worst poverty we have ever seen.
We spent one night in Puerto Princesa and then the next day, we went on a 6hr drive to El Nido.
It is worth noting that this was all happening a day before Chinese New Year so most places were filled to capacity. The ride to El Nido usually takes 5+ hours while just a few short years back, it took double that time because there were no good roads to cross short distances across this island.
I’ve heard someone mention that Palawan is about 30 years behind Thailand in development. To me, it felt like it was 50 years behind.
Taking a van from Puerto Princessa to El Nido was an experience in itself.
We waited for our van at a bus station and when ours arrived, three members of our family jumped in it immediately. 11 people were expected to pile up in an 8-passenger van. That’s when I realized that there were no seatbelts and that one of us was expected to sit on a makeshift stool for the next several hours of this drive. I ordered “my people” to get out of the vehicle and refused to accept this van as our paid transportation to El Nido. I know I looked silly to the locals (and maybe even some backpackers). However, I just couldn’t accept the risk of riding for several hours knowing that none of us were buckled up. My western privilege for insisting on riding in a van with a correct number of passengers with seat belts for all of us was exactly what was needed because, later on, I saw that the van was at times reaching speeds of 140km/hr. I’m glad I insisted on safer travel conditions for my family even though no major accidents occurred on this road during the time period we were on Palawan.
El Nido is an Instagram paradise. It is a backpackers’ destination of choice these days. Most come to El Nido for access to island hopping with white sand beaches and crystal-clear waters. El Nido is going through a transition from a small fishing village to a tourist destination, in a rapid state of development, building out a wide range of accommodations but with no sufficient infrastructure and with terribly lacking supply chain management. There are not many food choices in El Nido, no grocery stores even close in the quality we are privileged to have in the western world. While we were there, the supply of many main resources coming to El Nido was already being disrupted. Coronavirus was already affecting tourism. It seemed like it was a daily occurrence for restaurants to be out of major ingredients and most of the dishes on the menus were unavailable. I was told that even McDonalds was running out of buns often enough. We didn’t feel good about the food there. There wasn’t enough fresh food, cleanliness was questionable, I even saw a rat run through a burger joint once. Almost every meal seemed to be a bit of a gamble. Pedja got food poisoning and was down for a couple of days.
We were lucky to stay with our new found friends, Bee and her husband John. Bee helped us with all sorts of ideas for fun activities in El Nido and Puerto Princesa. I give all the credit for our most memorable experiences in the Philippines to Bee.
She generously shared her knowledge as well as the time to make our experience in the Philippines most enjoyable. Bee and John own a small resort in the most perfect location in El Nido and we stayed with them for all of our time there. Their resort was not fancy but the best place in town for us. It was in a perfect spot with gorgeous views, all necessary amenities, good breakfast, great management, kind, responsive and good staff, and excellent, affordable, island-hopping tours to Instagram-worthy beaches. While in El Nido, our whole family did an introductory scuba diving class. Nikola was supposed to be snorkeling while the rest of us were scuba diving but he chose to just hang on the boat instead. This was an all-day event with 4 dives that the rest of us truly enjoyed. This is an activity we’ll hopefully do again in some other part of the world. Kids and I also did a Philippine Cultural Tour where we made some local food, climbed a coconut tree, learned local street games and traditional dance.
El Nido’s natural beauty and especially the beaches on the island-hopping tours were picture perfect.
However, I was too often hyperaware of the level of poverty everywhere. In contrast to all the Instagram-worthy views, there were just as many sobering images of ruthless poverty right in the middle of that paradise. There were street dogs everywhere, some that could barely move; they were often in the worst shape I’ve ever seen an animal. The dog population is unchecked and it’s literally dog eat dog world there. Bee is an animal Saint on Palawan. She has been the point person for animal rescues in Puerto Princesa and El Nido for the past few years.
Tourists usually come through El Nido for a few days. We were there without much of a plan, thinking of staying for a week before heading north to Coron Island. We ended up staying there for the whole time, plus a couple of more days in Puerto Princesa. We spent time with Bee and her fabulous kids in Puerto Princesa where Maksim joined them for a Taekwondo class and Bee and I did some second-hand shopping. Meeting Bee and her family was the highlight of our Philippines experience.
Our plan was to go to Hong Kong for a week before moving on to Australia. That didn’t happen due to the Covid19 crisis that was already spreading outside of the borders of China. The first death outside of China was in the Philippines. A man that died from Covind19 in the Philippines came to Puerto Princesa a day before we did and he died in Manila 4 days later. All in all, we were anxious to leave the Philippines, worried that the Covid19 crisis could get us stuck there. I spent hours on the phone with the airline company and finally got our tickets to Australia changed for 10 days earlier than originally planned.
It was a good move for us as we were all looking forward to the comforts of the western world after almost 4 months in Southeast Asia.