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    Highlights of the Philippine Islands

    The Philippine Islands have a lot of good scenery, and for me the show began before I even touched the ground, as my flight through Hong Kong flew near the infamous Mt Pinatubo.   From the size of that crater you can get a pretty good idea of how massive the 1991 eruption was.   It was still having a significant effect even when I visited in March of 2006, because the ash visible at the top left-hand corner of this photo is still getting washed further from the mountain every wet season, inundating farmland and even whole villages.

    Mt Pinatubo  (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

    I pretty much vowed to avoid the capital city of Manila and head straight into the countryside, because as you can see the city is seriously polluted, and when you get down to ground level you find that it has appalling traffic congestion.

    downtown Manila   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

    Hundreds of thousands of people live in squalid conditions in Manila's slums, ekeing out a living within sight of the mansions owned by members of the plutocracy.

    During the reign of the late and largely unlamented Ferdinand Marcos, the moneyed classes prospered while the ordinary people languished in poverty.

    Even though "people power" brought about a change of government in 1986, many people complain that little has changed.   The new airport terminal is named after the opposition leader who was assasinated on this very tarmac by Marcos' hitmen, but many people say that the new airport itself is an excellent example of the sort of nepotism and corruption that plagues the country.

    Thankfully tourists in the Philippines are unlikely to be affected by this corruption, something which isn't true of every country.

    Indeed, ordinary Filipinos have a touching and somewhat naive notion of how close the world might be to a massive outpouring of love and forgiveness at all levels, as illustrated by this mural of George Bush and Saddam Hussein.

    Recent history, in particular the demise of Mr Hussein, dictates the need for updates to the mural, but the thought is certainly nice, and most people will find the locals friendly.

    I originally planned to spend one or two days taking in the pleasures of Manila, but in the end I didn't spend a single night there, and the only place I visited was the Philippines Air Force Museum, which is just outside the main international airport.

    Of course this museum isn't likely to be high on many tourists' lists of "must see" destinations, but it does fit in nicely with my fascination with airshows and aviation museums.

    What I foolishly hadn't counted on was that the museum, which is just inside a military base, was closed on the day turned up on the door, because it was Sunday.   Even though the museum is on the perimeter of the airport, it isn't entirely easy to find, but I'd hired one of the guys at the rental car dropoff location to take me there, and he was able to ask around and find it (actually the only way I'd even found the airport and the rental car place was by picking some random guy off the street and offering him a couple of hundred pesos to show me the way!).  As I mentioned, the museum was closed but after knocking on the museum annex door across the street we roused one of the air force guys and he was generous enough to take us in and show us around the interesting collection of aircraft.

    Most of the aircraft won't interest most of the people visiting this page, but here's one which will.   This is the dressing room of Imelda Marcos (she of the shoe fetish) which is at the back of the presidential transport aircraft, the Philippines equivalent of Air Force One.   The aircraft was locked but the steward again took the time and effort, unbidden by me, to open it up and invite me up to look around and take photos.

    But despite the rather specialized delights of the air force museum, I was off to one of the Philippine's many fascinating islands, in this case Bohol.   Here's the view coming in to land, with houses on the land and on stilts over the water, as well as arrow-shaped fish traps along the left-hand side of the photo.

    Technically speaking I wasn't even staying on Bohol, but rather on the much smaller Panglao Island, connected to the mainland near the main city of Tagbilaran by a one kilometer long causeway.   This scene shows the shallow bay between the two islands, I assume that the thing at the front of the picture is a fish pen or perhaps (heaven forbid) a turtle pen, to keep the animals alive after being caught.

    click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

    This is Alona beach, the main tourist haunt on Panglao.   There are beaches and some night life, but the real attraction here is the reef, which attracts scuba divers and free divers like myself from around the world.

    The reef off Alona beach is certainly good enough to keep most people happy for an entire vacation, but there are even richer pickings at tiny Balicasag Island, about half an hour away by "bangka", the classic outrigger boat found all around the Philippines.   The water here is very clear and there's both large and small marine life to marvel at.

    click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

    Here's one of the helpful boatmen who takes tourists across to Balicasag and provides able assistance with dive gear.

    In spite of chronic unemployment, most locals are very friendly towards the wealthy tourists who descend on their islands, and I never got the feeling that I was being ripped off or that I needed to fear violence.   Of course, as always it makes sense to be aware of your belongings and not to let too much temptation lie in people's path, but I had entirely good experiences with all of the people I met during my two week stay.

    Something rather unexpected and money sapping did happen while I was staying at Panglao, however.   I've been free-diving with a weight belt and camera for over ten years now, but this was my first trip with a housed underwater SLR camera.   While I was there I made several trips with various scuba divers using much less sophisticated systems, and so I finally took the literal and figurative plunge and learned to scuba dive, something I'd put off for quite a few years.   I'm glad that I did, since diving opens up a lot of opportunities not available to a free-diver like myself with a depth limit of less than ten meters.   You can see the results for yourself on this page of Underwater Highlights of the Philippines, and a page of Sea Slugs of the Philippines, where you'll find beauties like this Chromodoris magnifica.

    click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

    Most of Bohol's pleasures are underwater, but there are a few worthwhile sights on land, and it's always interesting to see how local people live, like these fishermen in their bangkas on the Loboc river.

    The fishermen aren't the only ones who might take a passing interest in you, though in this case I'm not sure if this water buffalo is more interested in me or that plant growing in its water hole.

    The most interesting scenic area on the island is the Chocolate Hills, a region containing several hundred low conical hills eroded from the thick limestone sub-stratum.   The "chocolate" part of the name comes from the brown color of the hills when they've been baked in the summer sun, but I timed my visit to the Philippines to avoid the worst of the heat, so what I saw was more like the "spearmint chocolate hills".

    It was cloudy so I wasn't very hopeful that I'd get much of a sunset, and so I made the mistake of ordering dinner at the restaurant on top of the viewing area.   Sure enough, within a few minutes beautiful orange light fell on the hills and the sky turned all sorts of lurid colors and I was only halfway through eating.   I finished up as quickly as I could, the sunlight was gone from the hills by that time but I was still able to get some shots of the colorful clouds.

    click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

    The biggest downside of learning to scuba dive, apart from the money it costs, is the time that it takes.

    Normally I like to split my time in a country between underwater and above water pursuits, but I ended up spending almost all my time doing classwork, pool exercises and actual dives.   This is the first trip I've made in several years where I didn't photograph a single butterfly, so you'll just have to get your lepidopteral fix from the butterflies of Vietnam page.

    As you've seen, I did make time to visit the Chocolate Hills, and on the same day I visited the Tarsier Visitors' Center near the town of Corella, which is vaguely on the way to the Chocolate Hills anyway, though when I came to cross the Loboc River I discovered that the one and only bridge at Loboc itself was out of commission, which meant that I had to make a 10 or 15 kilometer long detour down to the coast road and then back inland.

    It's possible to see tarsiers by taking a boat trip from Loboc, but these are illegally captured animals which are just used to extract tourist dollars without any concern for conservation.   In contrast, the Tarsier Visitors' Center keeps these extraordinary little critters in a natural jungle habitat and has a breeding program to try to keep them on the right side of extinction.   There are only around 1000 left on Bohol, which is a shame, since they've been around for approximately 45 million years.

    Philippine tarsiers are certainly extraordinary animals and very photogenic, as you can see.   They're one of the world's smallest primates, adults can easily fit on a person's hand, but they're able to jump a distance of three or four meters while moving from tree to tree.   The strange pads you can see on their feet help them to hold on to branches, and some of their toes have sharp claws which are used for grooming.   They're nocturnal and have the largest eyes of any mammal relative to their body size, but their eyes are so far forward that they must turn their heads to look around, something they've become very good at - their necks have developed in such a way that they can turn their heads a full 180 degrees!

    Most people who come to the visitors' center are here only for the tarsiers, but I was determined to see some other wildlife, so I paid one of the guides to show me around.   As well as various cool spiders and insects, I was lucky enough to encounter this tree snake.   Now if only I can figure out what species it is!

    click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

    The time I spent learning to scuba dive didn't just cut into my wildlife photography time, it also meant that I stayed longer than I originally intended on Bohol, and so I didn't have time to carry out my original plan of visiting the magnificent rice terraces of northern Luzon, the main island of the Philippines where Manila is located.

    I did make time to go to Anilao, one of the best diving places in the country and certainly the most accessible from Manila, just a few hours' drive to the south.   I stayed here for three or four days, diving several times a day as well as at night, bringing my total number of dives in the Philippines up to 15.

    I rented a car both on Bohol and on Luzon.   The Philippines has a typical south-east Asian style of driving, which means that road rules are secondary, driving where you shouldn't is fine if it's what you want to do, and you use your horn frequently to let other drivers know where you are, rather than to express your opinion of them.   It's not for the faint-hearted, but if you're able to maintain a relaxed attitude and you've seen how it works then it's certainly doable.

    The Philippines added a few twists to the mix, the first being a tendency to drive with their headlights on high-beam at night, even with traffic coming towards them.   This is quite a contrast with other countries in the region, where drivers usually leave their lights off at night, only flashing them on briefly when opposing traffic comes barrelling towards them.   If you're lucky then people will leave their parking lights on when they've driving at night, but somehow they've decided that you shouldn't keep your headlights on.   I'm not sure if that's out of consideration for pedestrians, or perhaps there's a cultural fallacy that you wear out your lights by using them.

    Anyway, the Philippines is different in this regard, which led to a most unfortunate situation for me.   After leaving Anilao I drove to the far south-eastern corner of Luzon, a journey of about 10 or 12 hours.   I decided to take a shortcut between Calauag and Sipocot rather than using the main highway.   The distance using the shortcut was about 60 kilometers, but I was doing the trip at night and with rain pouring down.   Throw oncoming buses and trucks into the mix with headlights blazing on high beam, and unexpected roadworks along sections of the road, and disaster was fairly inevitable.

    Actually, disaster was only inevitable because the roadworks weren't marked by anything more than dirt and branches!   By the time I saw the dirt heap it was already too late, and my little rental car jumped into the air and landed hard, eventually straddling the new strip of concrete and the water-filled, knee-deep ditch beside it.   The bottom of the car scraped along the edge of the concrete until I came to a stop and I realized that I was stuck in this isolated location until morning.   Or was I?   To my surprise I found that the car still moved when I started it up, and by steering the left side wheels out of the ditch and onto the dirt road I was able to move forward until I got to a spot where I could get off the concrete strip.

    Hoorah!   I was able to keep going to my destination, driving somewhat more slowly this time, I photographed the fateful spot when I drove back to Manila a few days later, and best of all the rental car agency never realized what happened!

    Not that there weren't plenty of other opportunities to encounter the sharp end of vehicular reality, like these slalom courses which seemed to be designed to slow down traffic as it went through small villages.

    In addition there were plenty of store signs jutting into the road, crops laid out to dry on the tarmac, and livestock enjoying the view in the middle of the street.

    One of the most magnificent sights when going east of Manila is Lake Taal, a very large lake with Taal Volcano on an island within the lake, with a two-kilometer wide lake in Taal Volcano's crater, and a smaller island inside that lake!   Lake Taal itself consists of water which collected in the caldera of a massive volcano, so there are high ridges above the lake, however when I visited it wasn't even possible to see the lake from the top because the air was so murky, and there certainly wasn't any hope of seeing Taal Volcano.   The volcano is very active, there have been numerous eruptions over the centuries, the most recent activity lasted from 1965 to 1977, during which pyroclastic flows travelled several kilometers across Lake Taal, killing hundreds of villagers.   You can get some sense of how hazy the air was from this photo of the faux castle at "Fantasy World Resort" near Lake Taal, which is supposedly modelled after the very famous Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria - which was itself a fake 19th century concoction!

    click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format
    click here to open a new page with this photo in computer wallpaper format

    That castle isn't the only great work of culture in the area east of Manila, there's also this mermaid at the coastal town of Atimonan, known locally as the Sirena.

    It's said to be a replica of the famous Little Mermaid on the rock in Danmark's capital, Copenhagen, but my guess is that the Danes have no great need to fear this bit of competition!

    Moving further east, here are some kids playing in a river while their mothers were washing clothes downstream.

    Another awesome sight in the far eastern part of Luzon is Mt Mayon, a classic cone-shaped volcano rising out of the plain north of the town of Legaspi.   After my experiences at Lake Taal I figured that I probably wouldn't have much hope of seeing Mt Mayon, but as I drove closer I was lucky to see its steaming top section emerging from a cloak of clouds.

    Mt Mayon is another of the Philippines volcanos which periodically blows its top and causes havoc on the surrounding populace.   In 1814 an eruption occured which buried Cagsawa church, burying alive the 1200 people sheltering inside its walls.   It's a popular location for locals and tourists to visit, including as it does the National Museum of the Philippines which fittingly contains exhibits on volcanos.

    It's also a great place to view the volcano, with attractive rice paddies on the rich volcanic soil and an unobstructed view to the source of all of that fertility and destruction.

    click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

    All of those local and foreign tourists attract vendors of various types, including the little girl in this photo who tried to sell me some bracelets.   I think her brother was astute enough to realize that a 40 something year-old guy was an unlikely prospect for a big sale of bracelets, so he reined in his sister and changed gears into a new mode called "what fun can I have with this tourist?".   Step one was to get a photo of the two of them taken, and they were very pleased to see the result on the back of the camera.   I guess if they'd been a bit more financially oriented they could have then requested some money for the shot, as quite often occurs in this part of the world, but this time it ended as a simple but pleasurable interaction between three human beings.

    Mt Mayon   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

    It wasn't Mt Mayon, Lake Taal or the mermaid which brought me to this part of the country, instead it was a fish.   A very big fish.   In fact, the biggest fish.

    About 30 kilometers south of Legaspi is the town of Donsol, which until 1998 was an insignificant dot on the map at the end of a dead-end road.

    Not all of Donsol is as rustic as this section along the river, but it certainly is out of the way, in fact there are no regular phone lines in the town, instead everyone uses cellphones!   You can do some worthwhile sounding tours along the river, though I didn't have time to try this option.

    click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

    But I was here for the fish!   Known locally as butanding, the whale shark is the biggest fish in the world, reaching up to 18 meters in length.   The ones I saw were mostly in the 6 or 7 meter region, but the amazing thing is that I saw them at all.   Donsol is one of only a few places in the world where you can reliably encounter whale sharks, the other main one being Ningaloo Reef in western Australia.   Something about Donsol attracts them to feed in the bay, and you can hop on a boat to go a kilometer or so offshore and seek them out for several hours.   Unfortunately it was cloudy the two days I was there, which makes it harder to spot them, and also makes the water appear even more murky than it actually is, but I swam with 5 or 6 each day.   You're only allowed to snorkel, and although there's a guide in the water with you, it can be hard to spot the approaching shark until it emerges out of the gloom only a few meters in front of you.   It did make me wonder what would happen if you inadvertently ended up directly in front of its head as it bore down on you - although they're gentle giants they must have the momentum of a large truck and I doubt that they can go into reverse gear!   If one freaked out even slightly then that would be a lot of fish to be side-swiped by!

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