When Maria arrived in Ho Chi Minh City early December, I had been traveling alone for over three months. As much as I had been enjoying my time on the road up to that point, I could not have been happier having her come over to travel together with me for a month. Seeing her again after such a long time and being able to spend time exploring together has been the best thing that’s happened to me on this journey so far.
After having cruised through Cambodia during the first half of our trip, we made our way back to Bangkok to fly out to the Philippines in time for New Year’s Eve. Getting there was somewhat of a logistical nightmare, but after twenty six hours and rides on a taxi, a plane, a bus, another plane, another taxi, a boat, a tricycle, and a bit of walking we arrived at our hideout in tropical paradise. Though I haven’t been lacking in tropical paradise destinations on my trip so far, the Philippines are a brand of their own. Their tourism slogan – “It’s more fun in the Philippines” – is terribly cliché, and yet absolutely accurate. People are friendlier here than in any other country I have ever been, not just to tourists but also amongst each other. Their interest in Caucasians is very noticeable yet genuine, and never in any way overbearing or bothersome. I was blown away by the degree to which the English language is used and has been integrated in society. Almost everyone speaks it fluently, all road and shop signs, information boards and advertisements us it, and connections to American culture and products are everywhere to be found. Purely in terms of vocabulary and grammatical proficiency, the Philippines surpass almost any other non-native English speaking country I’ve been to. And that’s saying something.
After not having seen the sea for nearly two weeks, naturally some beach exploration was in order, and when there are locals partying in bamboo beach huts with liter bottles of seven percent beer at 1.5 euro, you know it’s more fun in the Philippines. When you rent an awesome scooter to go there from a guy named Ken at a roadside motorcycle rental that’s basically just a bunch of parked bikes and they start cracking jokes at you, you now it’s more fun in the Philippines. Even after venturing into the sea without protective footwear and stepping on a spikey sea urchin, the splinters in your foot are quickly forgotten when you later have dinner on a torch-lit beach with waves crashing a meter away from your table. We waved 2016 goodbye from that same beach in the warmth of the 25 degree night and hundreds of partygoers alongside us. But not before having had our last meal, an all-inclusive Filipino buffet-style gala dinner with deafening techno music playing out the speaker towers for the whole duration. Needless to say we nicked the not-so-inclusive bottle of wine and got away with it.
And then we went diving. Even that is more fun in the Philippines. The sheer number of dive sites is baffling, and the combination of crystal clear water, exquisite marine life and an abundance of islands and coral makes it one of the best places in the world to dive. It had been just two months since I last dove in Egypt, but diving with Maria this time around was so much fun. We saw at least a dozen sea turtles, many kinds of colorful fish, and coral reefs straight out of the opening scene in Finding Nemo. Three days of life on a boat and in and under water, without a care in the world.
Another thing that surprised me was the actual size of the country. Over seven thousand islands make up the archipelago, on which nearly a hundred million people live their lives. Given the distance between them, the idea of visiting more than two island groups in less than two weeks is rather unrealistic, unless you want to be traveling half the time. We decided to stick to the islands of Cebu and Bohol, and spent the rest of our time together there. Bohol has lots more to offer than just diving, we saw the smallest monkeys in the world, and hills that looked like green semi-spherical domes popping out of the lush jungle landscape. At night we paddle-boarded down a quiet river and saw trees filled with dancing fireflies under a moonlit sky. Easily the most mesmerizing view I’ve had in a long time. We drove a hundred and fifty kilometers on steep mountain roads all across the island, past local villages where every single kid waved and yelled hello at us. Obviously we felt extremely cool.
Underbart är kort, way too short, and after a luxurious finale in a 4-star hotel in Cebu City Maria returned home. And I was once again by myself. A great month had gone by, and I spent the next couple of days in a reclusive beach town just reminiscing, swimming, and doing absolutely nothing.
To end my time in the Philippines with a bang, I decided to stay in Cebu City a few more days and attend the yearly Sinulog festival, a massive city celebration rooted in a religious feast honoring the Child Jezus. One and a half million people celebrating in the streets, a gigantic and colorful parade with dancers, singers, you name it. So I went and dove into the madness, and in some way emerged unscathed. I don’t remember everything that happened, but sipping craft beers with local DJ’s, chatting with a group of ladyboys, getting hit on by the gay owner of a massive night club were just some of the highlights.
And that’s that. I’m writing this in the cabin that I’m sharing with eleven Filipino’s on the 24-hour ferry back to Manila, from where I’ll fly via Singapore to Bali. One thing I am certain of is that I will be coming back to this amazing country at least a few more times. But for now, I’ll conclude my nearly four month’s stay in South East Asia in the most epic island nation of them all – Indonesia.
January 19th, 2017