Chocolate Hills and ISIS Island

Camiguin

The Philippines is a place backpackers don’t talk about much. It’s part of South East Asia but there is no way to get there other than flying in and flying out. Most other destinations in the region are accessible by small boats or buses. I think the slight awkwardness and added expense of flying to the Philippines is just enough to put off many low budget travellers.

That’s a bit of a shame to be honest. The Philippines is everything I’ve come to love about South East Asia.

Thailand, arguably the country that put South East Asian backpacking on the map, has completely turned its back on low budget travellers now. During our last trip there we were staggered by how much the character of the country had changed. People weren’t friendly anymore. Entire islands had turned to concrete. Tourists weren’t dressed the same. Crystal Shopping Malls towered over the weary population like huge temples to a new age. Suitcases, sun burn and stag-do’s were the new norm. Where had all the backpackers gone?

Well, some of the backpackers at least have found their way to the Philippines. The instant we boarded our first ferry to the island of Bohol we could taste it in the air.

Like slipping into an old familiar coat on the first chilly day in autumn, the Philippines felt right.

The ferry deck was piled high with backpacks, floors scattered with white cigarette butts and pistachio nut shells. Seats were torn and tattered but the sun was shining and warm. The ocean smelt good. Friendly smiles erupted on the sun-baked faces of everyone we crossed eyes with. Children giggled and pointed. We were back doing the kind of travel we like to do. Low budget, high reward, slow, easy. Interactive.

Under Rated Under the Radar Bohol

Bohol is a large island in central Philippines a two hour ferry ride from the southern capitol, Cebu. We’d booked into a quiet homestay on a lazy river somewhere near the middle of the island. We arrived mid-afternoon and quickly fell in love with the scruffy bamboo huts arranged around a busy little flower garden. A hammock was already strung up on our creaking balcony. The shared bathroom was outside and overgrown with vines and delicate hanging flowers. It was hot and humid but the crisp jungle breeze sizzled through the shifting branches just often enough to make life comfortable.

Before long, I’d picked up a discarded out of date guide book and I was reading.

In the morning we did some beginners Yoga with the owner and set off to explore on a motorbike.

The Chocolate Hills

Described in the brochure we picked up in the airport 7 Eleven as “Bohol’s unofficial natural wonder”, the Chocolate Hills are a strange collection of dome shaped mounds that turn the colour of chocolate in the dry season.

Generally, people we’d spoken to weren’t greatly impressed with the hills so we weren’t expecting much. There were a couple of other places of interest on the way, so we decided it would  probably be worth the trip.

Unpredictable Weather

After a hard two hour ride and just 5 minutes from the Chocolate Hills natural area, the rain started down heavy. Too heavy in fact to safely ride so we pulled over at the nearest man mad settlement and ran for cover. We ducked into a curiously low building not stopping to notice that it was actually a goat shed filled with shuffling nervous goats. By the time we heard them in the shadows we were already trapped by the weather.

The storm front had turned the world a gun boat grey and the roar of hail on the tin roof was too loud to permit further discussion.

What seemed like about thirty minutes passed. We decided enough was enough. The rain had eased a bit and the whiff of goat shit was starting to itch the back of my throat. There were finer accommodations up ahead we were sure. We made a dash for it.

Minutes later we were forced over again by the weather. This time we sought refuge under the awning of a shuttered up shop. The road had turned into a river and we were shivering and cold in our cheap Cambodian cotton.

Somewhere something in the universe heard our call because the shutters unexpectedly opened and a face beamed at us from behind the glass. “You want tea and warm?” Said the face.

For the next hour we drank endless cups of sweet tea, ate Oreo’s and chatted with Mia (the shop owner) and her husband. It was one of those crazy beautiful travel moments.

By the time our new friends waved us off the sun was beginning its decent toward the horizon. We’d forgotten about the rain, forgotten about the hills we’d come to see. The bike was pointing north, so we jumped on and revved off at speed in that direction.

The instant we crested the first hill and saw the landscape open up in front of us we pulled over and just stared in awe. Our first glimpse of these hills was something otherworldly. It’s very difficult to describe it without falling into tired old clichés but let’s just say this; the backpackers that told us it was average, probably have no soul.

I’m not sure I could ever be moved to tears by a view but the Chocolate Hills gave me sweaty palms and moved me to a sniffle.

Perhaps it was the excess of caffeine and sugar overloading my senses or the post storm setting sun, boiling up the skies.  Who knows?  The hills had a sincere impact on me though.

The 7 Eleven leaflet had it right. The Chocolate Hills are so wildly different. A true natural wonder.

The Chocolate Hills

ISIS Island

A four hour ferry ride south from Bohol lies the province of Mindanao. Mindanao has made the news the last couple of years for some pretty serious reasons. Mainstream media reports that along with Syria, Mindanao has become the second front line in the fight against ISIS.

Kidnappings and beheadings occur on a disturbingly regular basis.

Attack boats sometimes invade surrounding islands trying to snatch tourists or disrupt state visits. The culminating battles with the military are always drawn out, desperate and bloody.

The situation reached boiling point earlier this year when ISIS troops invaded and annexed the city of Merawi. Sharia law was imposed on the citizens of Merawi and a refugee crisis predictably followed. As I write this, Merawi is still a strong hold for ISIS forces with the Filipino government seemingly unable to restore order in the region.

That’s the official story.  Unofficially we were told something quite different.

The Philippines is governed from the capital, Manilla. Each large island group is classified as its own province with a fair amount regional autonomy. Every year each province is handed a huge sum of money from the central government in Manilla to maintain essential services such as hospitals, schools, water supply and transport.  Systemic corruption in Mindanao however has meant that the budget wasn’t finding its way to the services that needed it. Instead it was being funnelled by corrupt officials and mafia types to the lucrative international drug trade.

The new Prime Minister has a very tough stance on drugs so one of his first actions in office was to cut financial assistance to Mindanao and try to starve out the gangsters and corruption.  Mindanao’s response has been a stubborn promise to stir up unrest and agitate existing racial and religious tensions wherever possible until the budget is restored.

ISIS it seems, is just a convenient battle cry to rally the young Muslim population and coerce them to violent action.

Sailing into Hot Water

A local ex-pat told us about Mindanao’s troubles the night before we left Bohol.

We’d booked and prepaid a very expensive (by backpacker standards) 5 night stay along with transport a week earlier. Cancelling on our budget was out of the question.

Still, when a friendly local in a uniform approached us on the ferry and politely suggested that we take the next boat back to Bohol for our own safety, my calm, nonchalant demeanour shattered.

Our pre-booked destination rising up from the foaming waves was Camiguin, a tiny island in the province of Mindanao separated from the ISIS town of Merawi by a thin strip of water and about 20 km of farmland.

There were no tourists on the ferry over or at the ferry port. I couldn’t help but wonder if any of the men on the ferry were ISIS fighters heading into the fray. We didn’t see any refugees but to be honest, most people here have very little. Perhaps some were fleeing Merawi. I couldn’t tell.

We found a rusted out moto taxi and drove in silence along the coast to our destination. I was relieved to see some foreign faces when we arrived.

We slept soundly and the next morning we asked the guesthouse owners about the ISIS troubles. They explained to us that sadly, our ex-pat friend was correct. It was all about drugs and money. the ISIS stuff is just convenient bullshit. Safety wise we need not have worried. Camiguin isn’t a tourist island so it attracts very little attention.  Boat traffic to and from Camiguin is heavily monitored and all the criminal ring leaders are known to the police and therefore easy to spot and deal with if they set foot on shore.

There was smoke, but thankfully no fire.

Secretly I was a bit mad at myself. I’d gotten caught up and carried away in the standard travel hysteria. I’d had a crappy day yesterday looking over my shoulder, gnawing my fingernails and running endless kidnap scenarios in my head. Now in the morning sun I realised it was all for nothing. A rookie mistake, but an important lesson.

Even after two years on the road, I still have a lot to learn.

Camiguin

ISIS worries aside it took me just twenty-four hours to fall in love with Camiguin. It’s a paradise island.

There are places in the world where I’ve felt like a tourist. There are places in the world where I’ve felt like a backpacker. On Camiguin I felt like an explorer. It reminded me of the opening scenes of the movie Jurassic Park. I half expected to look up and see a pterodactyl.

We spent a week on Camiguin snorkeling the reefs right off the beach, climbing the volcanoes, bathing is hot springs and freezing in icy waterfalls. We drove our little scooter all over the island, hardly saw a tourist and the view never disappointed once.

Camiguin is old school backpacking at its best.

And to think, we nearly missed it.

Backpacking in the Philippines

We loved the Philippines. It’s definitely one of the last true low budget backpacking frontiers.

In a world where it can seem like the never ending march of tourism has overrun everything of beauty, the Philippines renewed our faith in the unexplored.

“For those lonely flip-flopped few who can marshal the courage to turn their backs on the crowd and walk in a different direction; May there always be another mountain, another beach, another horizon.  May every step be forward and may tiny travel miracles light your way to the unknown.”