Cruising Palawan - 2008

tricycle dad

Tricycle to town 30 pesos ONLY.

March 2008 - Preparing to Cruise to the Philippines from Borneo

We'd been half contemplating the Philippines since before we left Australia. It wasn’t on the Southeast Asia cruising circuit and we didn’t have much evidence of any useful cruising guides so, being conservative, in our “walking before we could run” phase, it was definitely on the backburner until we’d checked out the more cruised places like Thailand and Malaysia. Even Indonesia seems to get more yacht visitors than the Philippines.

The disaster rumour mill has also had a field day with the Philippines. They manage to score the usual SE Asia piracy and thieving stories, but also have insurgency and so, the dreaded “travel warnings”. The final straw that makes what appears on charts to be a mouthwatering cruising ground of islands and coral into a no-no for many boaties is the apparently never ending typhoon season.

One of the outcomes of this is a dearth of cruising information…or….actually….worse, a bunch of wrong stuff. Well maybe not wrong, but inappropriate for north-sailing yachties. It’s hard to form a sensible seasonal cruising strategy. (I’m thinking of something like the common strategy for the Great Barrier Reef in Australia which is to leave southern Queensland around May when the northern cyclone season has finished, winter is setting in down south and the SE season is about to start blowing yachts northwards. The return journey southwards takes place in the lulls once the southeasters start to moderate around October/November, but before the cyclone season starts. That sort of thing.)

What seems to happen instead is that the little info that makes its way into the clutches of us Philippines cruising virgins waiting in Kota Kinabalu (North Borneo) comes from yachties who have arrived there from north. The gist of it is that:

1. there can be typhoons at any time of year but the least likely time is between January and April (except in Palawan – first cruiseable island paradise you come to from Sabah - where the only ever recorded typhoons have been in January!); and,

2. the NE season is strong in November, December and January; and
3. therefore you set off in settled February into the by now lessened but still nor’easters to head in a north easterly direction up the coast of the closest island to Sabah, Palawan (ie straight into the wind and sea).

Because most of us are scared witless by the idea of getting caught in a typhoon and because we trust word of mouth info more than pilot charts, this is what we try to do, instead of setting off in, say, May, in the transition or maybe during the SW season, with any wind behind us. At the same time, stories abound of yachts who set out for Palawan across the "treacherous Balabac Strait", only to turn around in misery after battling headwinds and ferocious seas caused by the strong currents there etc etc. (Well, of course they do, silly, they ’ve got wind against current).

You can probably appreciate the quandary (and the obsessive consulting of internet weather sites) we go through.

Like most of the other boats in Sutera Harbour at Kota Kinabalu we planned to set off in early February to make Palawan in the above mentioned “best weather window”. But luckily for us, we had a few holdups and became the last cab off the rank. First, our overdue slipping was held up until after Chinese New Year. (We got back to the marina from the slip on 17 February.) Second, our sons bought a sailing boat at Sutera Harbour in Kota Kinabalu and Kit came for a handover and a visit for 2 weeks from 24 February. Third, once we finally left KK on 12 March our arrangement to get fuel at Kudat at the most northerly point of Sabah, evaporated and we were a week there before we could buy diesel and leave.

Whether being 4 – 6 weeks later than the other boats made a difference or not, we don’t know. But, the weather we experienced on the west coast in March, April and May, was, with very few exceptions, less than 15 knots on the nose (often less than 5 knots) and 1m northerly swell. (We experienced a few “typhoons”  -detailed later - resulting in some overcast and rainy weather, making coral navigation difficult, but, in general, March, April, May and June weather seems predominantly calm.)

The other boats from KK traveled up the east coast of Palawan and got plastered. We decided to stick to the west coast, figuring that the NE wind often slants to the east, so hoping for extra protection. The disadvantage with the west coast is that, on the charts at least, it looks to be one big blue patch (ie shallow/coral) extending 20 nautical miles out from the coast and halfway up the island.

We armed ourselves with the cuising log of Reeflections II who'd circumnavigated Palawan from Sabah in Nov - April 2006/07 (Thanks Robyn and Ian). And luckily, just before we were about to leave, a list of extra west coast anchorages fell into our hands from one of the only other boats we knew of who had ever cruised the west coast (Thanks Nick). We had also collected anchorages for the east coast and the Calamians from boats who'd been there a year or two before.

The original plan-ette was: after coming up the west coast of Palawan and through the Calamian islands (at the top of Palawan) we would head east towards Boracay, Romblon and Tablas Islands and then either northerly towards Puerto Galera at the top of Mindoro Island or, if the south westers hadn’t piped up too much, we would diddle around south towards Cebu Island, before holing up somewhere for the typhoon season proper.

(The newer plan is to head down to Puerto Princesa after the Calamian Islands, park there below the typhoon belt and make land and air forays from there until we decide otherwise.)

This is our track up the west coast of Palawan to the Calamian Islands and then down the east coast to Puerto Princesa where we are currently anchored (July 2008).

palawan track


Cruising Log - Palawan

March 2008

Palawan Island is the long narrow island pointing  NE from Sabah in Malaysia to the rest of the Philippines. With a string of small mountains running down its middle, there are few roads connecting one side to the other. Well, very few roads at all really. And sparse population.

It is considered one of the last frontiers of the Philippines and one of its real “treasures” to quote Lonely Planet.

Yachts ahead of us had given us two good tips. One was that the local phone company, SMART, had a good special on 3G connection to the internet at P10 (about A25c.) per half hour. (For which we needed a SMART SIM card and a 3G capable phone). The second was that there are very few ATMs in Palawan, possibly only in the capital, Puerto Princesa, on the east coast (so we needed to take some pesos, especially if traveling on the more isolated west coast.)

Our crossing of the Balabac Straits was benign. Hardly any wind and we even had some favourable current. (We did have the company of a Kudat rat, though. See Rat On Board in the Cruising Life section of this site.)

22 March 2008 – Balabac Town

Balabac was a real surprise. Another cruiser’s notes had described it as “small and sleepy”, with “lots of traffic from local boats…very noisy. Water filthy all town rubbish dumped at nite?”…

It was none of these except small and, I guess, a bit sleepy, especially at Easter when we arrived. We were charmed by it.

There was certainly no internet – not even any phone shops like we had become used to in Malaysia where there are five in every block – even in tiny towns. Though we were able to buy our 3G SIM – the only one in town – and “load” it with pesos – but only P200 (about $AU6.)

We found a small town on two sides of a 12’ wide coral-cemented main road backed by a large jungled hill. The modest wooden buildings on the beach side of the street were built over the water and a couple of wharves angled out from behind them. The street was lined with large shady trees.

balabac Balabac's main street.

We walked into town from where we’d parked our dinghy near a beach on which several bankas were hauled out. On the way we noticed that the small waterside houses all had pot plants and decoration. Those on the other side had lush shaded gardens fenced with bamboo, their owners out front sweeping up leaves. Many had palm thatch roofs.

Further along the road, near the Roman Catholic church, some of the householders kept turkeys. Others displayed flowering pots of orchids.

On the side of the road we passed a man set up under a tarp with his lathe turning beautiful ballisters (which graced several buildings in the town) from hunks of 5”x5”.


A little further along was a wooden furniture maker, his workshop open to the street. Also on the side of the road was the biggest pig I’ve ever seen, covered in mud and happily chomping in the shade, and right next door, a man painting the bamboo outriggers of his banka.

The pretty, well maintained school also faced the main road. But, as there appear to be no cars, “main” is a relative word. What there are, are tricycles. These wonderful vehicles are the Philippines answer to the Thai tuk-tuk, a motorbike extended with a double seat to the side, the whole lot encased in a stylized body. And in true Philippine style (we’ve come to realise), painted up and decorated.


It’s amazing what a tricycle can carry. Apart from half a dozen huge sacks and their owners, Balabac’s tricycles were busy carting dozens of crates of San Miguel from a boat on the wharf. Children, clutching lumps of polystyrene as floats, screamed and swam in the water beside it.

Along the length of the road at intervals were newly painted (and signwritten) garbage bins – in our experience an unheard of luxury in SE Asian towns.

In the middle of the town where a street turned out to the wharf was a large sign – again carefully sign written, with pictures – warning in words and pictures of the horrors of filiarasis, apparently a mosquito born disease that causes terrible swollen appendages in all sorts of nasty places. Another warned those coming from the wharf to walk through a footbath to help prevent bird flu. Nearly all signs in the town were in English.

We had to duck through the door of the tiny restaurant where we ate lunch. No glass in the windows – just wire netting (to discourage the rats?). But green crossover curtains and clean tables.

As our first stop in the Phlippines we also bought our first supplies of San Miguel. In glass bottles that come in a plastic crate. There’s a deposit on the bottles and on the crate! Bottle recycling must be a real goer in the Philippines (or Balabac anyway) in its own inimitable way. For the first time ever I saw a shopkeeper empty a bottle of coke into a plastic bag with a straw. The buyer walked away sipping happily from the plastic bag of coke and the seller got to keep the bottle.

As we walked back to the dinghy late in the afternoon, many of the women had emerged into the cool to collect water from some of the well pumps we’d spotted along the street or siphoning it into a variety of containers from 44 gallon drums that looked as though they had been filled from the spring running from the hill down to the town.

Back on the boat that evening I looked across at what I had thought was a dam on the headland together with an Australian style town water tower. We had been told that it was really the remains of an iron ore concern that had operated there twenty years ago – the “dam” holding the tailings. We wondered about the quality of the town’s water below it.

As we sat in the cockpit working on our first San Mig we could smell woodsmoke – lots f it. Just for cooking or a bit of mosquito protection too?

Our first impression of the Philippines based on Balabac – We think we’re going to like this place.

25 March 2008 – Heading north up the west coast of Palawan – Quezon Town

Anchored a night each in Canipan and Eran Bays, we could see settlements of 5 or 6 houses and smell their cooking fires – at night, only one or two dim lights appeared.

But we didn’t go ashore, needing to make distance between us and Malaysia to prove to ourselves that we’re really cruising again at last. And, still a little spooked by the possibility of a typhoon, we wanted to at least be near a cyclone hole, but there are none on this coast until halfway up.
As soon as we landed on the beach at Quezon town we met Cedro, who helped us drag our dinghy up the beach near the “Maritime” (in the thatched building nearby) and also mentioned that he had a bangka (pumpboat) and could take us to Tabon Caves if we wanted to go.

Maritime office The Maritime office

We needed to go to the museum to arrange cave permits and to try to find someone to help us solve our SMART SIM lack of internet problem. So far we had had the right kind of phone signal but had been unable to hook up. Philip was keen to be able to get the weather.

Even though we had had someone work on our HF aerial in KK (we now have a thick copper wire going up our mast and down to where our shrouds connect to the roof), we haven’t tried to use HF. We give the excuse that we are motoring at the times the scheds are but, to tell the truth, we are radio troglodytes. HF just seems too complicated (having to set up and hang around waiting for a set time) for the quality of the information you can get. Whereas on the internet we can look at a range of our favourite weather sites when we choose……but only if you can receive the internet. Hence the priority to sort out the SIM.

Ever Seen a Hotrod Hearse?

Quezon seemed a pretty little town with beautifully kept homes and gardens. Like Balabac, every house block was fenced and looked cared for.

museum The Quezon museum.

hearse philip

This hotrod hearse, spotted at Quezon, is not alone. We love the handmade cars in Palawan........Philip off to see Tabon Caves in Cedro's bangka.

Incidentally, we’ve discovered that the Philippines doesn’t seem to be a flag-flying nation like Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. It wasn’t all that unusual that we couldn’t buy a Philippines courtesy flag in Sabah, but we hadn’t even seen one flying until we got to the Quezon museum. When we asked about buying one we were directed to the tailor across the street who knocked us up one overnight (for 100 pesos - $AU2-50) and sent it to us via Cedro.

Tabon caves were the setting for burial urns 40,000 years ago. Here archaeologists are still uncovering bones and fragments of the same era as Niah caves in Sarawak. It seems Borneo Man was also Palawan Man who walked across a landbridge a long time ago. Despite being a much poorer country, the caves infrastructure here is way ahead of that in Malaysia where we had to turn back after 4 kms without seeing the caves because the boardwalk was in such a poor state.

29 March 2008 – Fish Bay – Tala Odyung

As I write I’ve got a belly full of coral trout and red throat sweetlip – one of our favourites from the Barrier Reef. We’ve had a great day. A big day in town with a couple of hours sightseeing there and back.

3 days ago we dropped anchor in Fish Bay intending to head for Ulugan Bay 20nm north where we could catch a bus over to the east coast of Palawan to check in and try to get our SMART SIM card internet sorted. But Fish Bay is so idyllic we’re not thinking of leaving for a couple more days yet.

It’s a horseshoe bay of clear aquamarine over white sand that shelves gently to the beach. Thick stands of coconut palms and shade trees line the sand and hidden under them are the beach shacks of rich folks and a fishing village called Tala Ajung. Moored in the shallows or sitting on the beach are the colourfully painted bangkas of the fishermen. The bay really is full of fish – decent sized reef fish as well as a lot of smaller types the Philippinos prefer to eat.

Tala Ajung mkt

Philip with some village helpers launching the dinghy at Fish Bay............The fisherman's camp and morning fish market at Tala Odyung.

Yesterday we met Maming, who welcomed us warmly with a fish and then showed us around the beachfront fishermen’s residences under the large trees next to the lagoon. As each bangka returns it is carried onto the sand, unloaded and the local agent weighs and sorts the fish, pays the fishermen and an informal fish market takes place. Maming’s husband, Rolando, is the barangay (village) captain and owner of the village land.

bangka bangka2

fish Morning fish market at Tala Odyung.

Rolando told us that every day they send at least 350kgs of fish to market in Puerto Princesa. Sure enough there were heavy boxes of iced fish being loaded onto jeepneys. Once we knew we could get to Puerto from here we abandoned the idea of Ulugan Bay – more difficult logistically – and planned our trip from there.

washing pump

The picturesque open air laundry at Tala Odyung. The water going into our esky comes from a spring via an old fashioned hand pump.

The next day, after doing our washing at the village pump we climbed aboard one of the two local jeepneys, “Express”, for the one and a half hour drive across 35kms to the capital, Puerto Princesa on the east coast of Palawan. Being Saturday, we knew we wouldn’t be able to check in with Immigration, but we thought it was worth a ride to give it the once over and also maybe catch up with some of the other yachts from KK.

loading jeepney tala odyung

After all the boxes of fish and ice were loaded onto the roof and all the passengers aboard we, as village guests, were ushered to the front seat with the driver for the trip. The front seat is relative luxury – much vied for. The middle person (me) gets to cosy up to the driver but at least you only have the tool box on the floor to avoid with your feet. (The people in the back have to put their feet up on or between the freight. But it’s not fish….only large boxes, sacks of charcoal or stacks of firewood.)

The jeepney’s first obstacle was getting itself and its 3 tons of freight out of the village – a long hill up a loose rocky way.  From there we proceeded towards Puerto, roaring and revving and blowing smoke and dust up and down the rough dirt track until the halfway point where we stopped at a natural spring to put water in the radiator.

road blowout

The smooth bit of the road out of town. ..............................................................Fixing the blowout.

Back on the road we hadn’t gone much further before we had a blowout – luckily one of the back tyres with double wheels – and stopped to replace the thin bald tyre with a thin bald tyre with patches. When I say we stopped, I mean WE stopped – but the motor was kept running so the driver and his helpers didn’t have to crank start again.

One of the clever design features of our jeepney was the 2" gutter built all around the roof edge, connected with 4 downpipes in each corner. In the wet season it would help keep the passengers dry…if it wasn’t rusted through. We now got to test the Express’s system. Yes, just a teensy bit of rust. Every now and then as we were flung around a curve or nose dived our way down hill, the fish juice from the now melting boxes of ice and fish on the roof (it’s 30 degrees out there) would spray down the holes and give the passengers below something to think about…..

But we all got to Puerto by lunchtime in one piece and perfumed, and perfectly happily headed for our tricycles to take us to the middle of the city.

The SMART Wireless center was shuttered for the weekend when we found it, so we were glad we hadn’t humped the laptop. We just had time for lunch and a visit to the Abanico yacht club before buying the “Dunkin’ Donuts” for the village and finding our way back to our jeepney for the return trip.

Abanico YC is a cute little thatchy place run by Cissy and John and built over a wharf near the PP yacht anchorage. Naturally you can get a cold beer (which we sampled) and a variety of western food (which we didn’t).  We only had 10 minutes to catch up with Peter and Ros on Adamant 11, last of the fleet left at PP, before meeting up with Thor (our tricycle) for the trip back to the bus and jeepney terminal.

We made the mistake of being on time – just in case – and toed the dust for a while waiting for just a few more packages and for someone to finish picking his nose, before heading for the gas station and finally getting away at 5.00pm.

jeepney2 The return load.

I forgot to mention a couple of unforgettable nights we had in Tala Odyung village. One was was sitting in the annexe to the thatched shop next to the local card game drinking beer and listening to Rolando singing love songs to guitar accompaniment by his old friend Lola O’te.

shop singing

dancing dancing2The other was dinner at Rolando's and Maming's house, followed by dancing the tango.

Having become confirmed digital camera snappers, we took the laptop ashore one evening to show the photos – and took more photos of the looks of delight on the kids’ faces.

5 April 2008 – Port Barton

With an earlyish start from Fish Bay on 4 April, we wound up at Sabang around midday to have a look at the St Paul Subterranean River, Palawan’s number one tourist attraction. From a lagoon hidden in rainforest, a boatman paddles you several kms into the cave. Using a handheld spotlight he picks out stalagtites and stalagmites in the shapes and colours of  “the virgin Mary”, “a nativity scene”, “a garbage mountain”, fruits and vegs etc.

Pretty soon you get into the swing of it and you can make out your own Jesuses and peanuts etc.  The original of the “river caves” of Luna Park fame. Marble and limestone make up the cave in greys and tans and blacks. Reminded me of pictures I’ve seen of Versailles – duck egg blue and old gold chandeliers.


Yesterday afternoon we threaded our way between a few reefs and pearl farms to drop anchor in 22m off a sand/coral spit between two islands in Port Barton Bay. We’re happy now. The potential hazards of a storm from the South China Sea in an open anchorage are now a thing of the past (we hope). We’re in an enclosed bay dotted with lovely islands that are steep but thickly jungled and green and are fringed with white beaches and cute little safe reefs.

german is German Island

Every beach is dotted with bangkas of all sizes – incredibly efficient narrow hulls of light plywood with bamboo crossbeams and bamboo outriggers – tied together with thick fishing line. [**21/7/08** We've learned that thick fishing line is the new wonder fastening - used everywhere for building boats, houses, wharves, anything. We love it.]

Last night, after checking to find we had used a quarter of our water, we got a good rain shower and filled up our tanks and all our buckets……there’ll be washing on the morn.

We plan to stay here a few days before meandering a bit further north towards El Nido, famous for its karst islands like Thailand, beaches and snorkelling.

7 April 2008 - Malampaya Sound

We’re on the move again. As I type we’re on course for Malampaya Sound…or maybe one of the bays on the headland just south.

The idyllic island in Port Barton where we anchored turned out to be called German Island (after its owner, a German) and was looked after by its caretaker, Tuting, a delightful man who kept the local tourist bangkas, illegal fishermen and coral destroyers away.

Tuting lives a very simple, solitary life, fetching anything he needs (including water) by bangka from Port Barton. He keeps chickens and cooks on an open fire in a stunning, open, resort-like bungalow on the sandspit of German Island. Unable to just walk down to the local shop, he was pleased with the few small gifts we thought he might use – fruit, a packet of Nescafe, some sugar and Coffeemate, some lollies and biscuits, some fish hooks and a mobile phone.


The town of Port Barton is simple and small, arrayed along a sandy beachfront. Lonely Planet describes it as “touristy”, probably because there are no fishing communities there and the beach is in fact lined with laid back bungalows and restaurants – VERRY laid back, perhaps just a teensy bit down at heel – maybe “natural” would be a better word. But there weren’t any signs of tourists when we were there – maybe something to do with the road being all but impassable

10 April 2008 - Malampaya Sound - Our first Typhoon

Bario Pangkol down the bottom of Malampaya Soun, is a one-trike-town where the number one industry is scooping jellyfish by the millions from Malampaya Sound and salting them in “above-ground-swimming-pools” for export to Japan. So big is this tiny town’s industry that they need a coastal freighter – anchored in their bay with us - to deliver the salt. Anyone with a bangka who isn’t scooping jellyfish gets 7 pesos (about 20c AU) per sack for heaving salt out of the ship, loading it onto their bangka, humping it ashore and stacking it in the storage shed.

At Pangkol we hired the town tricycle, (driven by its owner, Dante, shopkeeper and highschool teacher)  for a few hours for a trip over to the east coast to Tay Tay, ex-capital of Palawan Island. There we visited the old Spanish fort and shopped in the market for fresh vegs.

But the best part of the trip was when we had a puncture, only 10 minutes out of Pangkol. As Dante had forgotten his tool kit and as there happened to be a small timber mill across the road and as it was too hot to stay with the trike, we all trooped over the road to borrow some tools. While Dante fixed the flat tyre, this is what we saw…

water buffalo girls

Pangkol was also the place that finally cured me of road travel in Palawan. We needed to extend our first 21 day Philippines visa in Puerto Princesa so I made the 7 hour journey south while Philip stayed with the boat. I’d seen the passing buses and jeepneys crammed full with people sitting on the roof, but didn’t think I could cope with the heat outside. Even though the bus started at El Nido further north and was full by the time it got to Pangkol, our new influential friend, Dante, was able to ensure I got a seat. And what a seat – right near the window up the back.  Nice cool wind in my face. I nursed my pack so it wouldn’t fall through the rust hole in the floor to the dirt road below.

If you could see it, the scenery from the windows on the eastern side of the bus was spectacular and/or interesting. And a lot of the time, if I slid down the seat, I could see it, so that trip down to Puerto was OK (It was the trip back, sitting three to a seat that finally tipped me over the edge.)

(I had a few chores to do in Puerto but the most interesting and cool, was at the Immigration office. We’d noticed the first time we checked in that the two immigration officers here were quite unlike those we’d come across in other countries. Military bearing – NO. Officious – NO. Intimidating – NO. Bureaucratic – NO. Gorgeous young women?…Well yes. And very efficient ones too. At first they were a bit concerned that Philip wasn’t with me to sign the form to extend his visa. But after a couple of minutes they asked me if I could do his signature, I said I could and everything went smoothly from there.)

Malampaya Sound is a system of sheltered bays bordered by tall hills that twist and turn so that many provide anchorages protected from all directions. Around Alligator Island we had the chance to try out its security as our first Philippine typhoon was reported to be approaching. The website everyone keeps an eye on here is "Typhoon 2000" (a Philippines site). If there is something brewing, we then look at the "Joint Typhoon Warning Centre" site (U.S.A.). If not, we check the Australian weather bureau site - Darwin MSLP - to see if there is a low over Papua New Guinea that's getting lower and might turn into something. We also consult the Singapore weather bureau site to look at the South China Sea and sometimes the NOAA Significant Wave Height site for this area. Finally, if there isn't any violent weather likely, we check the GRIB files to see what wind is predicted here. (I'll put all these sites on the SEAsia Resources page - one day.)

Around 5pm the night before the morning our first typhoon was to pass right over us, we had finished stowing the awnings, clearing the decks, paying out more anchor chain and tying things up and had started hoisting the dinghy onto the roof. We hadn’t yet taken its weight on the crane when a dramatic storm of maybe 30-40 knots with rain hit us. The dinghy was bucking in the waves, but we couldn’t raise it because, in the air, on a string, it would be that much worse. At last the boat yawed enough to create a lee on the dinghy side and Philip winched like crazy until we had the thing snugged down in its chocks on the roof. Phew! Now we hoped we were ready to face the building typhoon.

Just as suddenly the squall stopped and we didn’t get any more wind that night. Or the next morning. That day we read the internet reports that the “typhoon” had passed over Palawan at around 5pm the previous night!! The weather had returned to calm, if a bit overcast, but we treated it with suspicion for a few days just in case. Since then we have heard reports that what passed over us was “the third typhoon to hit the Philippines this year”…and we can’t help wondering about their definitions and whether, in some crazy way, the Philippino weathermen want their country to be the BEST at something…and have chosen “typhoons – quantity of”. Hey, maybe the dreaded Philippino typhoons weren't going to be as bad as we feared.

You don’t have to be anchored many places in the Philippines before you notice three noises that are obviously different from Malaysia. The biggest shock is pigs! Pork (and a bit of rice, chicken and fish) seems to be the main diet. Unlike in Thailand, where we ate but never saw pigs – except in the back of a ute going to market – here we see them everywhere, usually tethered in people’s gardens. There are special pig transportation vehicles too – some form of barred sidecar attached to a motorbike. And now, as the sound wafts over the water from shore, I’ve come to know the difference in sound between pigs squealing because they’re being slaughtered and pigs squealing because they’re being fed.

pig Yes, it's a clam shell...

Another difference is the amount of noise from cocks crowing – cocks who can’t tell the time. Crowing cocks are a feature of dawn noise of villages everywhere in SE Asia but Philippine cocks aren’t here to herald the morning or father chickens. They’re put on earth to kill!

Cockfighting is one of the three main interests everywhere. In tiny towns we’ve seen notices of championship matches, local matches, regional matches with big money prizes. Everyone has a cock tethered out front. We’ve also seen stud farms with rows of A-frame roofs each with cock on perch. They are sleek, beautiful specimens, who would hate being called chooks.

When they’re not betting on fighting cocks, Philippinos are belting out a few numbers at the seaside videoke bar. But, in spite of their fame as musicians, the Philippinos (at least the ones we hear) are about equal with every other karaoke singer you’ve ever heard. The difference is, it’s loud and it’s waterfront.

16 April 2008 - Liminancong Street Dancers Kick Ass!

Just a short stop for a couple of nights at Liminancong, a small fishing town in the protected Endeavour Strait between Malampaya Sound and Bacuit Bay around El Nido, the home of Palawan’s outstanding karst  islands. Liminancong is yet another Palawan tidy town, with one difference - their street dancers are the champions of Tay Tay municipality and Tay Tay are the champions of Palawan. (They were banned from the Baragatan Festival in Puerto Princesa for a couple of years because they always won!)

We were intrigued when we heard loud and tribal-sounding drumming floating across the water from shore. Upon investigation we found half the town watching the rehearsals of their 50? strong dance team. The dance coach was a drill mistake and they had to start their twenty minute routine again. This was exciting, energetic, youthful, masculine dance - carried out in thirty degree heat. It was riveting.

Here's a photo of the ladyboys in the back row looking as though they'd rather have the girls' parts:

dance Liminancong gymnasium.

Philippinos seem to love basketball. Every small barrio has a court. Whether paved or dirt, there’ll be hoops with backing boards and a dozen young men practising their shots. It’s striking that a community facility that seems to be present in every larger town is an open “gymnasium/meeting area” where town meetings and basketball (and sometimes the town market) co-exist. The big, fancy ones here all come with a signboard proclaiming it as a project of Joel T. Reyes, the governor of Palawan. The politicians here have a wonderfully open attitude to blatant self promotion at the expense of the taxpayer – as well as Joel’s, we now know the faces of the mayor, the vice mayor and the president from the billboard photos of them shaking each other’s hands.

18 April 2008 - Bacuit Bay – El Nido

Bacuit Bay is full of karst islands only a few miles from each other, towering steeply out of the sea and ringed by coral in clear water. With no other cruising boats and very few tourists.

Bacuit Bay

Bacuit Bay from Liminancong

Our first anchorage in Bacuit Bay was in a small baylet on the SW side of Lagen Island. Anchored next to a sheer cliff towering out of the sea, we were treated to bullets of wind that kept the boat in motion. But by acident we had stumbled on a beautiful coral reef (apparently protected by the resort around the corner) that we could snorkel on by swimming from the boat. From here too we could nip over to Pinsail island for a look at the Cathedral Cave (pictured below.)

cave From Lagen Island we puttered over to Corong Corong town (in a more protected bay than El Nido) to check out the local "big smoke" 5 minutes away by tricycle. Corong Corong is a good enough bay in the NE season to use as a base for day trips.

El Nido, built on the beach with a drop dead gorgeous view of the islands, turned out to be smaller than we expected - quite a nice town with slightly more of a tourist presence than we'd seen so far in Palawan (ie we actually did see a dozen or so western faces and a couple of shops that sold butter and bacon.) So we were hopeful we might see some bread.

Since Quezon we had got on familiar terms with Philippino bread. Called “American” bread or “Cream” bread, it is snowy white and sweet as cake and sold everywhere in Palawan. Bakeries are big in the Philippines. But they’re not like bakeries as we know them. For a start, most of them don’t bake. And the only bread they sell is the aforementioned slur on the USA, already plastic wrapped.  In desperation for some real bread I’d even had a go at making my own wholemeal rocks.

We were delighted to find a bakery in El Nido that each day made just 1 batch of wholemeal rolls (with sultanas, but, hey, who’s complaining?) If you arrived at about 11 am and milled around, elbowing the one or two other westerners out of the way, you could corner the market.

23 April 2008 - Tapiutan Strait and Miniloc Island

Tapiutan Strait is a passage of clearest blue that lies between two soaring islands in Bacuit Bay. I guess "dramatically gorgeous" might sum it up, with snorkelling in 20m visibility and a strange Greco-Roman Catholic shrine thrown in for good measure.

shrine angel shrine2


Miniloc Island has superb snorkelling, 2 lagoons for kayaking, and is a stunning island with a resort. The only downside we could see for cruisers is that you have to anchor in 35m, so you'd better have plenty of chain.

27 April 2008 - Calamian Islands North of Palawan

After diddling around Bacuit Bay for a week or so we were satisfied you could spend weeks here, travelling 1-2 nm a day and discovering lots of new anchorages. But we were also getting keen to see the Calamian Islands and begin snorkelling in earnest: Busuanga, Coron, Culion and the lots of small ones.

In bright sunshine, we threaded our way through glowing cays and sandspits to Linapacan Island, Binalabag Island and Halsey Harbour on the western side of Culion Island. (Just for a change I'm going to slag somewhere that wasn't "clear", "glowing", "indescribably beautiful"...) Despite glowing reports, we failed to see the charms of Halsey Harbour, either for its scenery or its anchorages. While it is calm and protected, the rocky, scrubby shorelines with messy development are unattractive, the anchorages are deep and the reef comes up almost vertically as you close the shore.

1 May 2008 - We Hit the Calamian Islands: Busuanga, Culion, Coron and Lots of Smaller Ones

Under overcast skies, in calm flat seas among lightly habited islands we motored into Coral Bay, our first experience of the small group of islands to the north of Palawan but part of the same province. We were immediately struck by a development of waterfront, western-owned but mostly Asian-inspired mansions. How did they get here? Surrounded by islets with a few nipa, thatched stilt house villages, maybe ten westerners have contrived somehow to build themselves 100 square waterfront holiday houses. This is in a place with water-only access, maybe an hour by open boat from the nearest township of Coron. Coron does have an airstrip. What it doesn't have is much in the way of western products or lifestyle goods. It is a delightful place. Why westerners would set up mansions in Coral Bay, though, has us stonkered.

On the other hand there are lots of opportunities to get your foot in the door. We have been offered land for sale so often that we wonder what’s wrong if no-one approaches us…. And it’s good land too. “Do you want to buy an island?” a stranger asks after a few minutes polite conversation on the beach; “Sir, do you want to buy white sand beach?”… We have never asked prices but have seen the advertisements on the internet so realise how inexpensive it is. It is so strange. Particularly as foreigners are not legally supposed to own land. And Palawan is just full of gorgeous places.

4 May 2008 - Coron town

Finally…for the first time in 4 days my calves don’t ache when I walk. The result of our walk up to the cross on the top of one of the big hills that dominate Coron town on Busuanga Island.

walkway The walk down from the cross showing Coron town below.

Coron town definitely has a bit of style about it – at night the cross is outlined with lights, like the globes surrounding a starlet’s mirror. Not only that, but the adjacent hill displays large white letters spelling C=O=R=O=N, a la Hollywood. The waterfront consists of joined stilt houses sticking out like long wharves – a bit like the clan jetties in Penang – but atap rather than timber.

Calamian Islands Cruising

In sunny conditions where you can see the coral, the Calamian Islands are a paradise. Here is the best coral and clearest water since we left Australia. The drop off of the reef around North Cay is stunning, Cabalayan Island reef, ditto. The reef at the entrance to Coral Bay is also lovely. Interesting varieties of coral and good sized fish. What these places have in common is that they are privately owned with resident caretakers who protect the reefs from illegal fishermen using cyanide and bombs.

And we can see why private reef protection works here! At a lovely island with a deep channel right off the shore, we decided to nose up to the beach for a bit of a look. A couple of aggro looking chaps only glared when we waved at them. Then we noticed one had a rifle behind his back. They were definitely not happy, so we decided to wander off to another gorgeous islet. Ex fishing boat - albeit white - and we had our arms out; and Philip was wearing his Arafat hat for sun protection because we were driving from the roof to see the coral. They had us pegged as illegal fisherfolk and there was no way they were going to believe differently.

There are a lot of great big nasty looking guns around. Though usually you only see them wielded by police, army and multitudes of security staff who guard banks, supermarkets, phone shops...and have the biggest, shiniest gold badges and whistles I've ever seen.

Scattered through the Calamian Islands there are many wrecks too. These are mostly the carcases of part of the WW2 Japanese fleet who hid here and were found by American bombers during the war. One of the wrecks - in the anchorage we stayed in at Tangat Island - is very shallow - we were able to snorkel around and see it, although the water was not very clear there.

As a result, the whole area is a divers' paradise, with little Coron town serving as the transport and low key dive resort hub.

19 May 2008 - Too Many Threatened Typhoons - Too Much Time in Typhoon Holes

Since Malampaya Sound, when I last commented about Philippino typhoons, there have been two cross the Philippines that have affected our weather, Rammusun – a super typhoon and Halong, which formed in the South China Sea for heaven’s sake (they’re coming at us from both sides). We have also had other low pressure systems nearby and are constantly watching the weather sites for low pressures north of PNG that might deepen and become typhoons. We are sick of them!!

Looking back in our log, I can see now that we only spent 7 days in Port Luyucan (an excellent typhoon hole, incidentally). But it started to seem like forever. We saw some good walls of rain (filled up our tanks, our buckets...but couldn't do any washing because it was too wet!) and gusts of wind but nothing worrying. It's just the anticipation of what COULD happen.

rain Why we got sick of typhoons. Port Luyucan anchorage.

Even when the typhoon comes nowhere near, it creates rainy, overcast weather. Overcast weather is anathaema to coral navigation. Particularly with crummy charts. So, after much agonising (and 4 typhoons) we decided that when the next spell of good weather came, we would hightail it down to the capital city, Puerto Princesa, in the more protected part of Palawan.

Besides, there we would be able to buy new batteries. (Another of Philip's Typhoon hole activities was to investigate why we never seemd to maintain full charge in our battery bank. Unfortunately he found that one of the new batteries we'd bought in Penang twelve months ago was no good and had taken the other batteries with it. )

Culion Town - A Beautiful Church and World Class Leprosy Museum!

But not before seeing Culion town.

In 1906, the American owners of the colony of the Philippines, set up a leper colony on the island of Culion. For the next fifty plus years, until a cure was found and administered to all, lepers from all over the Philippines were rounded up and placed on the island. There, research and treatment were carried out by dedicated doctors and Catholic church medical staff. Until leprosy (now called Hanson's disease) could be cured though, being sent to Culion Island meant exile forever from your family and your free life.

We liked Culion town a lot. It has a nice little would-be promenade along the waterfront where you can see the coral in the clear water of the bay. It has lots of old timber houses and big trees and a hill right in the middle with little lanes winding up it. And it is full of history. From the beautiful renovated Spanish Church from the 16th century to the sanitorium from the leper colony period.

Part of the sanitorium now houses a great museum bursting at the seams with artifacts and personal stories. One of the prime leprosy reseach laboratories at the time, it now stores even the old microscope slide samples and equipment, just in case you'd like to check the scientists' findings.

museum museum

The museum tells the history of treatment there and the tragedy of the inmates in photos, hospital equipment, news clippings and a hundred other kinds of memorabilia. Smaller but as good as the Sarawak museum.

The Trip South to Puerto Princesa - Whale Sharks and Reef Fish

Philip reckoned we'd get a 5 day calm sunny weather window so we day-hopped south. First, Culion town to Bulalacao Island. In a place where beautiful islands are a dime a dozen, Bulalacao stands out. The white sandspit beach is a horseshoe planted with Franjapanni trees casting flowers in the shallows and punctuated by pale boulders. I loved it - until I realised I'd been eaten by sandflies as I kayaked nearby.

sandflies Sandfly bites from Bulalacao Island!

At Cabulauan Island, in 10m, we could see every shell on the bottom, something we haven't experienced for a LONG time. I think the reefs here must be prolific. The locals catch coral trout and keep them live in sea cages - presumably until they are collected by the local buyer. And we were able to buy a huge Red Emperor at a ridiculously small P100 ($2-50), which was twice the price the fisherman asked for it. It's a surprisingly large and orderly village on this island.


smooth sailing

We are motoring along on one of those fabulous days where the water looks an oily mauve and blends in to the horizon. Almost a glassout. We are doing 7.6 knots at 1100 RPH. Motoring on Lifeline doesn’t get much better than this.

In what was meant to be just a trip and not a leisurely cruise, we were surprised yet again when 3 whale sharks came to meet us as we slowed down to anchor near South Verde Island. The day was wonderfully calm. The charts had been showing 450+ fathoms of water, but as it shallowed and the depth sounder began to register, I saw what appeared to be a big square floating object right ahead of us. Yelling to Philip to slow, I ran up on the foredeck. By then the object was clearly a 30' whale shark, which had now closed its big square mouth and turned around to lie nudged up against the side of the boat and I was looking straight down on his head, about a metre wide.

But it all happened so quickly I forgot to take a photograph. Within moments, he and his two mates took off for deeper water. As the driver, and in restricted water by this time, Philip had to stay at the wheel and missed the excitement.

29 May 2008 - Puerto Princesa

We have been in Puerto Princesa, anchored near the Abanico Yacht Club, for 5 days. The bay is more open to the south than we’d like in a typhoon, but, given that Puerto is below the supposed typhoon belt at just under 10° latitude, we think it might be a safe anchorage for the south west season.

20 July 2008 - Batteries and Baragatan

We are still in Puerto Princesa and have finally got our 4 new batteries from Manila after more than 4 weeks. We realise we had forgotten what it is like to have decent working batteries. And also that our batteries have probably been bad for well over a year. Philip bought 2 new ones in Penang when we were there in April  2007 but always suspected one was not right. Because there is no need in Australia, he hadn’t tested the new ones before accepting them and we steamed off to Borneo with a shirker on board. This time, he insisted on 4 batteries from the same batch and took his voltmeter to test them before accepting them.

batteries The new batteries being lowered into the engineroom.

If you’re not a boatie, you might wonder what all the fuss is about….but healthy batteries mean we have a store of electricity to run on when we are not charging. When we are steaming, our engine makes electricity. But when we are on anchor we get electricity from our solar panels whenever the sun is out. At nighttime or if it’s cloudy we rely on stored electricity in our batteries.

Now we can use electricity again: no more fights about flushing the toilet every time or running the taps (electric pumps), no more typing really fast so I can switch off the laptop as quickly as possible, no more sharing a reading lamp or watching the Link 10 power gauge obsessively. (YAY!)

The weather has been so calm and sunny that we feel like fools. While we cower from typhoons here in Puerto Princesa, Adamant II, Morning Cloud, Lady Emma and Pemburu Laut - other boats who left Kota Kinabalu around the same time - are enjoying Boracay, Romblen, and the Visayas.

But then we did get to see Baragatan - the Palawan festival where all municipalities come together in PP for two weeks of parades, competitions, handcraft exhibitions etc. It was fun.

22 August 2008 - John's Abanico Hothouse

After sitting for more than a month in PP with perfect weather in June, typhoon Frank in early July tragically vindicated our decision to stay here rather than cruising central Philippines. Typhoon Frank devastated large areas including the places we had originally planned to visit. So we are not unhappy with our decision.

As I type this I calculate Lifeline has been anchored here in PP three months and the time has slid by very cosily indeed. Little spells of travel and activity, broken up by beers and conviviality at John and Cissy's extraordinary Abanico Yacht Club.

While John insists that the Club is Cissy's show and Cissy gets on with managing staff, sailing, marine maintenance, catering, renovating and a thousand other tasks, John hosts and hothouses any yachtie who turns up, plus all his expats. Apart from doing anything they can to make life easy for boaties (like providing facilitites and workshop, minding boats, dogs, bailing dinghies, closing hatches, carrying loads, recommending places, supplying all sorts of bits and pieces otherwise unavailable etc) the Abanico Yacht Club functions as an eighteenth century salon.

Cissy off to do the shopping. cissy

workshop Abanico workshop and storage.

John is a perfect English gentleman and witty raconteur - but with a good whiff of lanky, grouchy, unkempt hound dog. He's an avid collector and facilitator of ideas, witticisms, sayings, books and experiences. (And hats.)

Abanico Yacht Club's Sunday lunches aren't famous in Puerto just because of the food. When John works the room, it isn't to further his own ambitions, but to introduce, to ease shy folks into conversations, to encourage mixing - the perfect host. But it's over beers in the club - officially closed after 5pm but never empty - that the discussion of politics and books really takes over. When John's moderating the table, political discussions get loud, intellectual (to the best of our ability, anyway) and radical but never angry. In the nicest possible way everyone who wants it, gets a turn to speak.

Brooke's Point

In early July we were lucky to be invited to visit friends at Brooke's Point in the south of Palawan. For three days we were treated like part of our friends' extended family: taken to visit their coconut and copra processing plantations; shown rice fields and rice milling; handcraft villages; homes and culminating in a huge family beach picnic - complete with karaoke machine!

Mt Marayogsala

Mt Marayog resort near Brooke's Point.

karaoke beach kids

Beach picnic karaoke.


We've not long got back from a 3 week trip to Vietnam by air and land - while Lifeline stayed here safely tucked up under Cissy and John's watchful eyes. And in a couple of days we head off for Cebu for a few weeks' swing through the middle of the Philippines by ferry to see the places we didn't see on Lifeline.

When we come bck it will be nearly October and we will have to make a decision about where to head from here. For the first time we don't have even vague plans about what country we want to visit next.....

no guns Puerto Princesa airport officials.

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