Spanish colonisation began with the arrival of Miguel López de Legazpi's expedition on February 13, 1565, from Mexico. After this, the colony was directly governed by Spain, eventually unifying a country that was previously an agglomeration of small kingdoms and sultanates in a perpetual state of minor wars. Spanish rule was never entirely accepted however and ended in 1898, with Spain's defeat in the Spanish–American War. The Philippines then became a territory of the United States, entering another struggle for independence, from a country they had mistakenly thought was their ally against Spain.
The Filipinos had just agreed their Independence, when the Japanese began their occupation during World War II, arriving only a few hours after their attack on Pearl Harbor. However, the Philippines proved to be the bloodiest theatre of the war for the invaders with at least 498,600 Japanese troops killed in fighting the combined Filipino reserves. Approximately, 10,000 U.S. soldiers were missing in action in the Philippines, when the war ended, more than in any other country in the Pacific or Europe. An estimated one million Filipinos were dead.
When the war ended the Americans were welcomed back. Independence eventually went ahead, with the Philippines continuing to be heavily economically reliant on America.
More than a quarter of the Philippines' 105.7 million people live in dire poverty. This is a polarised society and there are few opportunities for social mobility, whilst there is rapid population growth. The rural areas are notably poor, but there are large shanty towns in many of the urban areas as well.
The Philippines is a relatively safe country to visit if you heed FCO advice (and this always tends towards the cautious). There has been terrorist activity with some kidnapping in the south and west towards the ocean borders with Indonesia, so these areas are best avoided - check for the latest guidance.
This is a fascinating and beautiful country, with incredibly sociable people, a contender for one of the most interesting countries in the world.
The highlight is possibly the rice terraces of Luzon - more magnificent and more ancient rice terraces, than the ones in Bali.
But also consider:
El Nido Island, on the northern tip of Palawan Island, in the Philippines, is reached by Sea Air from Manila and North Luzon. It’s not a sea plane this time, (although these are on offer), but the plane skims over the dots of islands that form northern Palawan, as close to the water, it seems, as a sea plane, before bumping over the hills to land. We stop at Busuanga Island on the way out. This is where folk go diving over World War II Japanese wrecks that were sunk by American navy bombings in Coron Bay,
Palawan Province is named after it's largest island and it's the largest province in the Philippines. It's also known as The Last Frontier, as it's on the western reaches of the archipelago. And Palawan is often referred to as The Best Island. I'm hoping the reasons for that will become clear.
El Nido is (yet another) hidden gem of the Philippine Islands – a relatively unknown Halong Bay of feathery karst columns, each surrounded by its own idyllic white sand beach and colourful reef. What better way to spend a holiday, with Neil, than to commandeer a banca (local boat) each morning and sail away to a different island, with a picnic lunch that you can probably eat in total seclusion. all you have to do is wander down to the pier in the fishing village. It all adds to the fun, when the boat breaks down.
Some of the reefs of El Nido are recovering from the dynamite fishing, which is still not completely eradicated. But, close by, Miniloc Island is famed for the clear waters of its Small and Big Lagoons. Shimizu Island has fish-filled waters and engaging snorkelling and Dilumacad (Helicopter Island because it's ostensibly shaped like a chopper) has a long tunnel leading to an underwater cavern. But you have to dive to see this, so I’m leaving that one out. There are encounters with grottoes (artificial and natural) and birds nest guardians to enthral instead.
El Nido means “nests” in Spanish and this is the home of the island’s endemic swiftlets. The birds, known locally as balinsasayaw, use threads of their saliva, instead of twigs, to build their nests in crevices and caves on the cliffs. Climbers called busyador brave the slopes each day, to collect the nests. These are highly prized by the Chinese for making soup.
My favourite island, of the many, is probably Pinagbuyutan Island. It's tranquil, less visited, and has dramatic cliffs which tower over the minuscule stretch of sand, with its one shack. The snorkelling, just off the beach, is pretty good too.
There are upmarket (and correspondingly expensive) resort hotels, complete with their own islands, to be had. But I’m settling for Lally and Abet Beach Cottages. It's not the prettiest of all the many stretches of sand, but it’s comfortable, reasonably priced accommodation. The owners are really helpful in sorting out each day’s excursions and in providing plenty of coconuts. Like many Asian villages it's a little noisy at night. The dogs never seem to stop barking. There are plenty of restaurants serving local food, of varying quality, like squid in its own ink. Now back to Manila
Packing for a trip to Bohol island in the Visayas. There is a typhoon alert out in Visayas.
Helen and (husband) Stewart have booked the trip and made the arrangements. We eventually leave for our flight to Cebu. There's an onward ferry to Bohol from Cebu City port. The traffic to the airport in Manila is terrible, as everyone prepares to move out for the forthcoming national holidays. A usually 15 minute journey turns into an hour and it begins to look as if we will miss our plane. We finally arrive at the terminus feeling we have minutes to spare. Unfortunately, we are turned away as is the wrong terminus. PAL has their own. Helen is extremely embarrassed and by the time we have found a taxi and got to the right terminus the desk is closed. The next flights are all very full so Helen and Stewart offer to come back early next morning (2 a.m.) to get stand by tickets for the next days flights and I go back to Merville.
We catch the 7.30 flight with number one stand by tickets. The flight is hard work for a wimp like me. The turbulence from the impending typhoon is so bad that not even the airhostesses are allowed to stand up and I spend the whole journey in a cold sweat. We make our connection to the ferry at Cebu with spare time, only to discover that most of the crossings have been cancelled due to the weather. Our crossing is cleared for departure but is preceded by a number of announcements “This will be a rough crossing” . I take two seasick pills, but in the event it is nothing like as bad as the plane. The two hour journey is more exhilarating, than frightening, though the ferry does yaw considerably. Several passengers are making use of their paper bags.
Bohol province has one main island, named Bohol (the Filipinos call it 'God's Little Paradise') and 75 smaller ones. A taxi carries us across Bohol to Alona Beach on Panglao Island, just off the coast from the capital, Tagbilaran. Panglao is renowned for its diving. It features on those unreliable Top Ten in the World Lists. Here, all is peace and sunshine. Little rattan huts on the beach and a superb restaurant with wonderful tamarind flavoured sweet and sour. We relax and sunbathe and stroll along the sand.
On the beach, the water has cleared enough after the typhoon, to go snorkelling on the house reef. Like many of the local reefs it has suffered from dynamite fishing and (though to a lesser extent than in the Maldives) to bleaching of the coral, because of the warming of El Nino. The crown of thorns starfish is a problem here also, as in other parts of the world. The shellfish that eats it has been totally depleted by hunting, so as to obtain its beautiful shell. Crown of thorns eats coral and has no other natural enemies. Karsten, a lanky Viking diving instructor, lectures us for hours about all these problems and vents his disgust at the way in which the locals clean the local weed off the beach by scooping it up and burying it. Nevertheless I see a big grouper, shoals of bright zebra fish and a black and white sea snake. The latter are poisonous, but have very small teeth.
Spend the evenings till late drinking in the Safety Stop bar with Karsten. The generator explodes, sending sparks all down the beach.
A taxi to the must-see Chocolate Hills of Bohol, which are greenish at this time of year. They are an amazing clump of 1268 hills, rising directly from the ground. They are awe inspiring, in the same league as the Taj Mahal. We sit and drank in the atmosphere, from a platform perched on the top of one of the hills.
Lunch in the restaurant before moving on to see the tiny local monkey called tarsiers down by the river. They are endemic to the Philippines and are only the size of a fist. They have huge eyes, which are fixed in their heads, so they can rotate their heads 180 degrees instead. I would have said interesting rather than cute. Many of the locals believe they are evil spirits and they have been stoned and hunted to the point of extinction. It doesn't help that they are solitary animals, preyed on by cats and owls. We visit a reintroduction project. The monkeys crouch on my hand and then leap six feet back into their open cage.
The scenery is beautiful and breath-taking – paddy fields, green swathed mountains, white beaches and glimpses of sea views though mangroves and palm trees. We watch the caribao cattle ploughing and crowds of children emerging from school, in uniform. The tranquillity is marred somewhat by a local cockfight. This is possibly the most ancient of all sports. The pitting of cocks against each other was brought to Greece by the Persians, although most experts agree that it originated in Southeast Asia. Bets are exchanged, around the cockpit, to shrill shouts and much excitement. Five inch blades are attached to the roosters' left legs. Blood is spilled.
Time to return to Manila.
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