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A piece of Puerto Princesa

Eating a plateful of timolok worms may have been one of the highlights for John Ryan Mendoza when he visited Puerto Princesa, but as he discovered, there’s always more to discover in this part of Palawan.

Everything turns poetic in Puerto Princesa.

 

“Do they taste like what a worm would taste like in your head before you ate it?” said the Facebook message that my Canadian friend sent me after leaving an appalled comment on a photo of me biting a tamilok.

“They tasted familiar, like oysters, but still very different,” I replied, amused.

The tamilok, a wood worm that thrives in coconut tree trunks, is a local delicacy in the island province of Palawan. My transgender travel buddy and I just found them in a menu at Kinabuch’s Grill on the second night of our promo flight getaway. At 130 pesos, we had a full plate of skinned worms with a small saucer of vinegar. The tamiloks only got to the side of my friend’s face for the photo, so I had the whole squirmy plate to myself. They tasted like very, very long oysters. After dipping it in vinegar, I had to slurp a whole juicy one in order to chew it. I finished most of the plate. I just hesitated at the thought that my stomach wouldn’t be so happy about it and may just end up in toilet confinement rather than the Palawan outdoors the next day. I turned out fine and I definitely would have them again, cooked next time. Puerto Princesa, Palawan’s capital city, offered so much more aside from these quirky tamiloks.

Ka Lui’s cake
We started this Puerto Princesa trip with a dinner reservation at Ka Lui’s Seafood House. We had to go on barefoot to get inside so we had to leave our footwear in numbered drawers at the entrance. The place had a native Filipino ambience and was packed. We were ushered to a low candlelit table for two and were crouched comfortably. We ordered the Ka Lui’s special for the day. At 485 pesos, we had full course meal of veggies, prawns, fried fish in mango sauce, grilled fish, and a young coconut with tropical fruits. The whole night, my transgender friend couldn’t help but notice the good-looking waiters that served the customers. Then we had a surprise for the night- a not just phallic, but really penile cake was served for a birthday celebrant in the next table. My friend guessed right, Ka Lui is proudly a successful gay businessman according to locals. With this gay vibe, I would definitely come back here with friends and have that cake.

Ice cold island tour
On the second day, as Typhoon Gener was raging over most of Luzon, a morning text brought bad news. Our subterranean river trip was cancelled due to the reported dangerous river currents from the local coast guard. Unfazed, we proceeded with the Honda Bay island tour.

At 200 pesos, we rode a tricycle to the boat terminal where we started to pay the various fees and taxes for the tour. We were about to pay 1,300 pesos for just the two of us, when luckily a young (het) couple was also there looking to share a boat with others. There were four islands and one reef that were lined up for the tour. Entrance fees for Pandan and Cowrie islands, 100 and 75 pesos respectively, were paid there at the terminal. All other entrance fees that charged 50 pesos were to be paid once getting there.

We first stopped at Luli island. It was just a sand bar where a highly stilted house and some small cottages stood. The boat man told us that the whole sand bar submerges during high tide. That’s why it’s called “Luli” (lulubog-lilitaw). We just spent a brief time exploring the quite dense mangrove growth and proceeded to our next stop. We then arrived at Pambato reef, where we donned our rented snorkeling gear and footwear. We all rented the equipment at 150 pesos each at the shops near the main highway and then just realized that we can rent them even cheaper at 100 pesos at the boat terminal. Oh well, next time. There was so much colourful fish and corals too see but there was just one problem-the water was too murky. Being in a low pressure area was starting to take its toll on our tour. On a sunny day, I’m pretty sure how much more amazing this underwater world would be.

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Next stop-Starfish island. It was starting to rain when we disembarked from the boat and four starfishes welcomed us at the shore. After going around for the camera poses and jump-shots, we realized that those were the only starfishes we ever saw. Maybe we weren’t looking well enough, but I was starting to suspect the starfish welcome was staged. It was starting to get really cold so we all took refuge in the warm seawater. We all wouldn’t recommend swimming here, snorkelling I guess, for the beach was too rocky, unless you are into pain.

It was on our transit to Pandan island when the torrential rain poured. The island was so shrouded in thick white mists that our boatman got disoriented – just freaky. After around 30 minutes, we arrived at the more developed island all drenched and freezing. Cottages for rent at 300 pesos were at the beachfront and a food and drinks counter was at the interior. We took shelter at a tent beside the food place and had our lunch of grilled squid and pork at 180 pesos per plate. The island was just surrounded with snorkelling spots. After our cold meal, we finally dipped into the soothing warm waters. This time, we brought a feast for the fishes – breadcrumbs. One doesn’t need a life vest anymore since the spots you can feed the fish and find corals were very shallow. Just stay clear from the black gardens of sea urchins and occasional camouflaged stone fishes. They all sting pretty bad.

The weather was getting worse but we were all still resolute to get our money’s worth. After another chilly and wavy trip, Cowrie island proved to be worth it. It had the finest sand and the most pristine waters among all the other islands. This last stop’s warmer water was just perfect for languid swimming after enduring all that cold. We finally sailed back to the terminal and then all parted at our respective hotels after sharing again, a tricycle. Just one classic – share a boat/tricycle, win a friend – day.

Wet City Tour
On our third day, the morning text message made us abandon all hope we had for the underground river tour. The typhoon raged on and the underground river currents could kill, the travel agent told us. We were just left with the city tour option. Our friendly driver agreed to tour us for the whole day at 500 pesos. We first drove to Palawan governor-owned Rancho Sta. Monica, popularly known as Mitra’s Ranch. Located at a hilltop, it had a magnificent view of Puerto Princesa and offered various activities such as horseback riding, trampoline jumping, and ziplining. My friend opted to pay 500 pesos for ziplining. The ranch’s zipline had 3 lines where you can transfer from one line to another thru towers as high as the tree tops. The first zip line is 300 meters long while the 2nd and 3rd zip lines are 150 meters long each. The male zipline staffs were so accommodating to my friend that they agreed to take photos of all her zipline moments and even invited her to a drinking session sometime after work. Maybe it’s just my friend’s charm or just this place’s really friendly locals.

Then we proceeded to Baker’s Hill. It is a bakery/restaurant with a mini park with fun statues, exotic birds, and beautiful landscapes. No wonder, it is a pretty famous dating spot for locals. The Hopia Ube and Hopia Baboy are the bakery’s famous delicacies.

The non-stop cam-whoring at the mini park eventually starved us so we went the nearby Dampa sa Mansion Restaurant for lunch. You get to choose the fresh seafood from the display and just buy the amount you need. You then have them cooked the way you want at 100 pesos. We were awful at estimating the amount of seafood we want and ended up paying much for the food we can’t all consume. We just got them packed for the next day. The place had a nice open space and you can just enjoy the fresh air while dining. Except for really rainy days when mists of water would just spray on your entire table if you are near the peripheries, which was unfortunately our case.

The rains were hard again and the driver updated us of the situation of the other usual city tour spots. On that day, butterflies were a no-show in the butterfly garden, and getting to the crocodile farm or the Palawan Wildlife Rescue and Conservation Center was impossible due to the flood-damaged bridge. We just moved to our next stop – the Binuatan Creations. Binuatan Creations had this weaving workshop where the staff assists you in making handloom woven mats using the indigenous plant fibers of Palawan drawn from the buntal, coconut, buri, cogon grass, pandan, and pineapple. Their products are world-class exports and you can buy these native products at the source. The bags are really good and cheap. Impulsive, broke, and thick-faced, I bought four and had my friend swipe her credit card for me. Once the buying starts, the shopping mode is on for both of us. We then rode to the newly opened LRC 908 Market Mall, where there was an assortment of local handcrafts, pearl accessories, and lots of pasalubong items.

It was a Sunday and my friend wanted to hear mass at the Immaculate Conception cathedral. The driver then brought us to the Baywalk, which was just very near the cathedral. The Baywalk is a famous place to enjoy the view of the Puerto Princesa Bay to stroll, bike (available for rent), and to try street food. After the usual photos, we were then finally transported to the cathedral. I had an hour to wait for my friend so I just killed time at Plaza Cuartel, which was just a few steps from the cathedral entrance.

Plaza Cuartel looks like a plain city park with concrete pavements, tall trees, water fountains, and benches. With the clinging couples at every corner, I now get why the driver said it is known to be a “lover’s park” for local teenagers. Yet I realized after some reading of inscribed texts at the monument, the ruins of an old garrison and tunnels are proof of its brutal history. This plaza is the site of Palawan Massacre. In the tunnels, 150 American prisoners of war were kept during World War II. It was on December 14, 1944, the Japanese decided to burn them all alive. Many died and only eleven prisoners survived and escaped the mass execution. Then it rained on me at this quite dark conclusion for the city tour.

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Badjao at the Seafront
After the mass, we were both ready for our fourth leg of seafood pig-out. At 60 pesos, we got a tricycle to transport us from the cathedral to Badjao Seafront Restaurant. It’s a popular place and is expectedly crowded so we had to reserve a table earlier that day. When we arrived, the winds were strong and it was already quite dark. We had to pass through a hallway with wafting white curtains and can see that the restaurant is built on top of a mangrove forest. The place had large open windows, some of which were unfortunately covered then due to the winds. On nicer weather, I’m sure it has a beautiful sea-view. Named after the Badjaos, the restaurant is adorned with textiles that are associated with the seafaring tribes in the south. We agreed to just have modest dinner since we quite overspent for lunch. The mixed seafood dish was expectedly good. All our neighbouring tables had crabs, shrimps, and all the fish Palawan can offer, and all looked satisfied. This place lives up to its fame.

Big Brother and Garcellano
The fourth day was my friend’s last day and we figured to just enjoy our remaining hours at the House of Big Brother. For 1,000 pesos per night, our “housemate” room had two couple wide beds, a hot/cold shower, wide screened flat screen TV with cable and a kitchenette equipped with modern fire-less induction cooker, electric kettle, automatic rice cooker, refrigerator, microwave oven, cooking and dining utensils. Cooking skills would be very much handy and economical along with Palawan’s bountiful seafood and vegetables that are just waiting in the city markets. Big Brother offers quite a good deal for a larger group and a longer stay.

I still had one more night in the city so I had to check-in into another place by noon time and I fortunately discovered the cheapest place ever- the Garcellano Tourist Inn. It is only 250 pesos per night. Don’t expect Big Brother’s extra amenities, for this place only has fan rooms with private toilet and bath. They have bigger rooms for larger groups but the rates still remain less than 500 pesos. If most of the day you would just be enjoying the outdoors, this place gives you just the comfortable basics for your stay.

Vietnam in Palawan: Chaolong
On this mission-less day, we finally tried Chaolong for lunch. We have been seeing many of outlets around the city. We discovered from the stories of our tricycle driver/tourist guide that this ubiquitous Vietnamese dish came along after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. At this time, Vietnamese migrants first began arriving in boats in the Philippines. A refugee camp was setup by the United Nations in Palawan. The still existing small community of the refugees, called Viet Ville, is about 13 kilometers up the road from Puerto Princessa.

To be more factual, Puerto Princesa’s chao long should be qualified, the Vietnamese chao long, is “scrummy” rice porridge (the chao) laden with innards (the long). Puerto Princesa’s chao long is flat, thin rice noodles in a sweet-savory broth with your chosen meats (beefbones, beef , pork), served with the indispensable plate containing raw bean sprouts, shoots of basil and mint, and a piece of kalamansi.

We had a taste of this dish at Bona’s Chaolong House and Restaurant, where prices are really cheap. I ordered the Beef Bones with Noodles Special (55 pesos) and French Bread with Cheese (25 pesos). I liked it a lot that I had Chaolong again for breakfast the next day.

Walking along Rizal Avenue
When my friend had to go to the airport for her flight, we just decided to walk from the House of Big Brother. Google maps advised us it was just near, and it was. When we arrived, we both gave tricycle drivers 50 pesos to get us to our accommodation. We realized it was too much. The regular fare which was eight or ten pesos was enough.

I was then alone. I decided to just walk again from the airport and along the stretch of Rizal avenue, one of city’s main streets. The air was so non-Manila. Even while strolling along a street with so many vehicles, the air was clean. Puerto Princesa lives up to being the cleanest and most environment-friendly city in the Philippines. This main road is sprawled with hotels, motorbike rentals, handicraft stores, travel agencies, restaurants, and bars. These are proudly good indicators of an ever booming tourism industry.

It was already night-time when I reached the Baywalk. Locals and tourists just leisurely hang out while viewing the quiet bay. The vibe has been peaceful not only here but throughout the areas I have been so far in the city. Locals and official reports verify that Puerto Princesa is still the most peaceful among the urban centers in the country. Puerto Princesa Mayor Edward Hagedorn had reported that the city has the lowest crime rate and highest crime solution efficiency compared to other urban centers in the country. With strong political will, significant impacts like this are truly achievable.

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Ima’s Gulay Bar
It was my last dinner at this peaceful green city so I searched for the nearest vegetarian restaurant. Just a few blocks from where I was staying, I finally found Ima’s Gulay Bar. Quaint and somewhat intimate were my impressions of the place when I got in the wooden cottage. Their menu declared that they served delectable continental vegetarian dishes. I then automatically looked for entries that were unfamiliar. I ordered the spicy okra and mango pasta (70 pesos) and a smoothie called Ima’s blend (80 pesos). The restaurant had a good wifi connection so my partner and I had a “vegetarian dinner date” via Skype. He was also having his veggie bolognaise. With good vegetarian food, affordable prices, quiet ambience, and a free and fast wifi connection, Ima’s Gulay Bay is my instant favorite. I came back the next day for lunch and stayed there to do some writing until I had to leave for the airport.

I was welcomed back in Manila by the remaining wrath of Typhoon Gener. In the taxi on my way home, the strong wind howled, the heavy rain fell, and flood and traffic was everywhere. I just happily thought to myself that I have had a piece of Puerto Princesa and still has that sweet promise to return.

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