Traveler’s Tales from the PhilippinesBy: Don Dudgeon (Sep 19 2022)
Are you thinking of going on holidays? Are you tired of Europe, the Americas, Bali, Fiji and Thailand? Then let me take you to the Philippines! Oh I know when you go to the travel agent he will probably roll his eyes and try to talk you out of it. And Yes, Manila is one of the most polluted cities in the world! But they have excellent five star hotels at prices quite a bit cheaper than other cities. How about the prestigious Manila Hotel for $150 a night single? And if shopping is your thing then you will be happy. And you won’t find more handsome, loyal young men anywhere else. And in what Asian country would you find English generally understood? Maybe the gay scene is not as free as it used to be since the do-gooders moved in and pushed all the young men out on the street. And there is always the danger that the handsome man you meet on the street may come back to your room and plant drugs there and soon there will be a knock on the door and the Customs people will be there trying to extract blackmail. So you do have to exercise prudence. But why stay in a city anyhow? Too many tourists stay in good hotels and insulate themselves from the real world and never really meet a local except as a room boy or waiter or hustler. The Philippines has some lovely holiday destinations away from Manila such as Cebu, Baguio, Calauit Island, E1 Nido, Dipolog and probably the most famous of all Boracay. Twenty years ago this was undoubtedly a beautiful spot but it is now almost as congested and polluted as Manila itself.
But let me take you to a most unlikely spot-Bacolod. First of all learn to pronounce the name, the accent is on the second syllable. Bacolod is the capital of Negros Occidental, which was the main sugar region of the Philippines. It is a 55-minute flight from Manila and the return fare is $150. There is a new boy on the line called Cebu Pacific, which is presently offering cheaper introductory fares. Bacolod is not distinctive unless you consider a cemetery in the middle of the road as being noteworthy (and there is one). It has two 4 star hotels and two 3 star hotels. The cheaper 3 star property is the Sugarland and backs on to the airport. This is no great problem except that in the 12 years since I was last there they have removed the top storey because they considered it a hazard to air traffic. The rooms can be noisy during the day as it is on a busy road and Filipinos love tooting car horns but they are very quiet at night and rooms have all the necessities such as private shower and toilet and hot water, cable TV, air-conditioning and comfortable beds. The room rate was less than $40 a night single and full breakfast in an attractive coffee shop was about $6. Dinner at the same place was about $10 to $12. I stayed one night at the other three star property, the Garden, in a Deluxe room which was good 3% star quality and very quiet looking over the back garden and swimming pool. The price there was about $75 single. It does pay to bargain with the front staff for a better price but it depends on how well they are booked as to what sort of discount you can get but you should get at least 10%.
The real highlight of my stay in Bacolod was a four-day visit to the Costa Aguada Resort, which is reached by a 45-minute drive in an air-conditioned mini van and another 45 minutes by boat. As you approach the island it looks just like a big crocodile emerging from the water. The island is about the same size as Boracay but it has only the one resort so it is quiet. And it is pristine clean. When you arrive you are escorted to the main pavilion where the waiters and front office staff are lined up to greet you with a song. The pavilion is magnificent (so are the waiters). It even has trees growing through the roof. The bungalows are comfortable and well maintained, fully screened and with good western shower and toilet with nice verandahs overlooking the sparkling sea. The linen is good quality and changed daily. A thermos of iced water is brought each morning. Service is good and unobtrusive. The grounds are spotlessly clean. There is a large swimming pool as well as swimming in the ocean. There are tennis and basketball courts, barbecue areas, a games room including billiards, table tennis, darts and board games. There is a jungle walk, which takes you to the top of the range at the back of the resort and a turtle breeding ground. There used to be a floating bridge winding its way for about a kilometre through the mangroves but that got swept away in a storm just before I arrived. There is a native village with local crafts. It only seems to get crowded at Easter and Christmas. This is a botanical park and instead of the usual Asian custom of cutting down trees there is much evidence of planting new trees. The single tariff for two nights including transfers from your Bacolod hotel or airport and ALL MEALS was $215 for two nights and $95 for additional days. I would recommend that you take the package with just bed and breakfast because I was certainly not able to eat my allowance for lunch and dinner.
But that is not all that you can do in Bacolod. It is quite a cultural city with two universities and several colleges, restored homes, art galleries and old locomotives from the days of the sugar trains. There are two mountain resorts, Sante Fe and Mambucal Mountain Resort. Both are about 20 miles outside the city. I spent two nights at Mambucal with four Filipino friends and we had an Executive cottage, which had two bedrooms, a bathroom and a lounge area for about $40 a night for the 5 of us. It was rustic but quite pleasant. Mambucal is at the foot of Mount Kanlaon a volcanic mountain rising to about 2,500 metres. It has two craters one of which is still active and erupted only a few months before I was there. The resort has a nice swimming pool and hot sulphur baths (massage available, don’t miss one) and several waterfalls.
The City Plaza in Bacolod is a famous meeting ground. Filipinos all think we are wealthy (and any of us is compared with them, the mere fact that we have been able to save the money to get to Bacolod is proof of that) so you are expected to pay for favours. And even if you never tip at home, please tip in the Philippines. That might be the only money the waiter gets.
Now that I have convinced you what a wonderful holiday destination this is, I should warn you not to expect to get any help from your travel agent, Philippine Visitors and Convention Bureau, or Philippine Airlines. There are only two airlines, which fly from Australia to Manila, and they are Qantas and Philippine Airlines. Qantas certainly has the best service and more space but Philippine Airlines can certainly provide much cheaper accommodation packages. Also at times Philippine Airlines offers one free or half price domestic flight for passengers arriving on their international service. And they also have a cheap upgrade to Business Class, which is about $700 more than the normal excursion fare. Apart from the extra service in the air it does provide specialised lounge accommodation on the ground which is a real consideration in these days of delayed services.
To help you plan your holiday I am prepared to share my travel experience with you. I also recommend for reading that you buy the Lonely Planet Guide.
Next time I will write about Filipino values to guide you in your relationship with your special friend when you get there. Salamat!