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April 27, 2013

White sandy beaches, rich marine life, nice people, plenty of sea food and good conservation lessons… Firoz Fazil unravels the many facets of Philippines after a recent trip to one of the most beautiful archipelagos on earth. 
The mention of Philippines naturally brings to your mind the image of its capital Manila. Though it is a common knowledge that Philippines consists of more than 7,000 islands, it took a recent one-week media FAM trip to realize how beautiful the country is, and its rich marine diversity.  
Manila is the typical third world place for you with all its pluses and minuses. The authorities, however, are trying their best to provide good infrastructure.
In Manila, the most frequent mode of public transportation is Jeepney. It shows the resourcefulness of Filipinos; it was their way of making use of the military jeeps discarded by the US soldiers post-second World War. Take the face of a jeep, add a slightly slanted version of bus and sprinkle a lot of decorations and interior art works for visual taste! You have the Filipino Jeepney ready. It has got an old-world charm as it chugs along the roads quietly and smoothly.
And the ubiquitous tri-cycle, an autorikshaw-like custom-made body built around a motorcycle, which are in abundance on the roads of Boracay and Palawan just astonish you on account, again, of their sheer ingenuity and creativity of the Filipinos. Four, sometimes six, passengers can travel in tri-cycles.
In Manila, we visited Casa Manila Museum, which showcases the Spanish-era colonial lifestyle of upper class Filipinos. Here you get to see the exquisite furnishings, kitchen utensils, and artworks during the 17th century onwards. Antique furniture, age-old music instruments, chandeliers and Chinese ceramics stand testimony to the kind of opulent life led by the upper crest.
We also saw Fort Santiago, an important historical site in Manila, which was built by Spanish colonialists. José Rizal, the Philippines ‘Gandhi’ according to our local tour guide, was jailed here before he was executed in 1896. Filipinos hold the multi-talented and vivacious Rizal in high esteem and adulation; for he provided what they called the “intellectual stimulation” for the uprising against the Spanish invaders as he set about providing a non-violent background for the revolution. At the Rizal Shrine Museum one can take a peek into the lives and times of the great hero of Philippines. This museum will interest anyone, especially history buffs as they can see all those interesting memorabilia, such as the visiting cards of a bygone era (Rizal was a medical doctor).          
Palawan and Boracay
The next day we landed in Palawan, the largest strip of islands in Philippines and the country’s largest province. It is a narrow archipelago comprising of 1,780 islands. Unlike other islands, it is geographically remote with some of the islands even closer to Malaysia.
It’s a one-hour flight journey from Manila. Domestic carriers like Cebu Pacific and Sea Air have frequent flights to all major islands such as Palawan. There are ferry services from Manila to various destinations. We were told Manila-Palawan ferry takes almost a day. But it must be worth trying if you have time, for, you can watch up close the numerous islands and other signature attractions on your way. We took the Cebu Pacific flight and every one of us preferred a window seat to get a bird’s eye view of the islands and blue waters down under!
Rain greeted us when we landed at the Puerto Princesa City airport in the morning. After checking in to the hotel, we went for the city tour. Palawan is a sleepy and laid-back place but with all the modern facilities at your disposal.
There are varying theories to how Puerto Princesa got its name. Being a Spanish word, it is obvious that it has to do with the Spanish colonials. One story goes like this: in the ancient times, a beautiful princess used to roam the bay at night and thus the name. Another theory is that the name is derived from the uniqueness of the port: it is endowed with the natural protection from stormy weather across seasons with sufficient depth to allow ships of all sizes to anchor. Puerto Princesa is Spanish means Princess of Ports.      
Known as the “Last Ecological Frontier of the Philippines” on account of its unique ecological treasure trove, Palawan is home to 232 endemic species and a wide variety of flora and fauna. Because of its natural wonders, Palawan has the most number of protected areas in Philippines.
Dotted with almost 11,000 square kilometers of coral reefs, the province is endowed with magnificent caves, virgin forests, towering cliffs, rivers, ponds, streams and numerous creeks.
Puerto Princessa is the cleanest and greenest local government unit. No wonder it is the first and the only recipient of the UN Global 500 award for its innovative and sustainable environmental protection, conservation and development programmes.  
Amazing are the ways the people of this land care for and conserve the environment. Criss-crossing the interiors of Palawan, one can really feel the tranquility in the air; clean environs and verdant land are too tempting for someone who loves nature. The place is untouched by civilization, a civilization whose hallmarks are mindless concrete structures and plastic-littered pathways. Special efforts are undertaken, involving tour operators and all other stakeholders at local levels, to conserve the nature and minimize the negative impacts of tourism.
Another attraction in Palawan is the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Centre. The crocodile farm, where crocodiles of various sizes are reared, is worth visiting. The Palawan bearcat here provides photo-op. Though it may look scary, this creature is harmless. 
Aquatic wonders
Having been born and raised in a coastal region, a sea shouldn’t be a tempting proposition for me. But there is something so exhilarating about the blue aquatic wonders of Philippines. The white powder sandy beaches and crystal clear blue waters are too alluring to resist; too tempting even for those suffering from aquaphobia! And if you are a water sport lover, this is the place to be in! On offer is a host of water-based activities such as snorkeling, helmet diving, fish fly, banana boating, etc.
We went for island hopping in a country boat, which is such a thrilling experience as you will get to see the myriad wonders of Philippines. Small islets and reefs of various sizes dot the sea. The blue ocean gives you the rush and the picturesque surroundings with small islands and islets are a lifetime experience.  
As part of the itinerary, we were supposed to go for the underground river cruise, but couldn’t because the river was overflooded.  
Unlike Palawan, one can see that Boracay is receptive to too much of tourism with plenty of resorts. But this “too much of tourism” doesn’t mean pollution and other resultant consequences we are used to witness in India. May be our ministers and industry stakeholders can take a lesson or two from these places.       
Boracay looked much exciting than Palawan. Its powdery, soft sand and blue shallow waters are fun to play with. We stayed at Boracay Regency, close to the sea. 
At Boracay and Palawan, we did snorkeling and helmet diving. Floating on the water, snorkeling provides you the perfect opportunity to get a closer view of the rich marine life – corals and hundreds of lovely small fish. There is no ‘diving’ in helmet diving! You go under the sea, may be 12-15 feet, with a oxygen cylinder-connected transparent helmet with the help of two trained guides; one of them fitted with scuba/snorkeling gear.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Here you are, inside the Nature’s own Aquarium taking a closer view of the aquatic wonders such as the wonderful corals and the fish. You can’t stay longer, even though one would wish to stay longer period, as the pressure of underwater is too heavy to stand; you need to hold on to the helmet gear, lest you’d falter and fall due to the underwater pressure.   
We were treated to the best of food. If you are a seafood lover, Philippines is the paradise. Prawns, lobsters, various kinds of fish etc are on offer. But a small caveat: don’t expect that your pepper-induced Indian dream will come true as you await your Filipino food! Thanks to Luisa, the tourist officer from Philippines Tourism who was our tour guide throughout the itinerary, we were doing restaurant-hopping, savouring various delicacies.   
I will be doing a disservice to Philippines if I don’t mention about the people there. Uncomplicated and friendly people minus the you-have-come-to-pollute-our-country kind of gaze at you. To use the term ‘tourist-friendly’ will be trivializing the cool nature of the people. After all, where else you will find cops greeting you with a warm smile?   
One week isn’t enough to relish the enormous beauty of this beautiful archipelago. 7107 islands! That’s the total number of islands in Philippines. Some are remote and uninhabited. But Palawan and Boracay were a microcosm of what must be in store in those numerous pretty islands out there!

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