Monday, December 2, 2013

Hello, Palawan! (Day 1, Part I)

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Finally! Palawan in 3 days and a very selected (limited) itinerary based on agreed schedule my companions set in March this year when we grabbed a TigerAir promo.

Palawan, sure, why not? My running joke then, as was my actual motivation for going, was to see the famous UNESCO-declared World Heritage Site that is the Puerto Princesa Underground River while it was "there for the taking," so to speak. This sarcasm stemmed from the fact that the Philippines has been at loggerheads with China* since April 2012 over territories covered by Palawan’s 1,780 or so islands—that’s roughly 3.99% of the entire Philippines’ 7,107 islands that just happens to fall under one province alone.

*Specifically, the flashpoint I’m referring to is the Kalayaan group of islands although the stand-off between China and the Philippines is about Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal,** also known as Bajo de Masinloc which is officially and historically part of Masinloc, Zambales Province, in Luzon up north.
(**Also refer to here and here for some basic and interesting info I found on Google. These are linked only as reads and for no other claims of authority,  legality or veracity of disputes.)

Anyway, to Palawan, certainly, in case China does take over not just Panatag Shoal and parts of Kalayaan Islands however it intends to which means requiring a passport to enter, tour and discover, and appreciate certain parts of my country–I don't care, really, for China's flippancy over its passport page designs–a preposterous and completely unacceptable circumstance should that be.

As I’ve taken most of the local airlines for domestic trips to Visayas and Mindanao, I was a little curious about TigerAir. I learned from my friend just before take-off that TigerAir is the budget airline of Singapore Air so that gave me some assurance of quality service which, thankfully, was satisfactorily addressed.

The map-and-direction OC that I am couldn’t help but ask about our route and I was replied to by the lead female FA informatively. I must mention that asking the same can be a disappointing experience as I’d previously (Air Philippines and Cebu Pacific specifically), such as inquiring what side of the plane Mt. Mayon would be visible from on a trip to Naga, what set of islands we were flying over on our way to Mindanao and what altitude we were at one other time) and the FAs couldn't, didn't have a quick answer. On top of that, there were no ridiculous dancing or gimmickry on this Palawan flight which was very much appreciated.

Ultimately, first impressions last, they say. We, seated comfortably in our reserved TigerAir seats, took off from Terminal 4 (the former Manila Domestic Airport) for Puerto Princesa, Palawan, on time.

DAY 1 - Arrival

We were tourists from Day 1, my companions and I. For purposes of identification, they were: my cousin May and colleague Chingbee, both partners of mine in our social enterprise, and Mike, May’s husband. (Carla, another partner, cancelled due to work schedules in Manila.)

The trip itself did not feel like being airborne for 1 hour or so. In no time, Puerto Princesa showed itself through the clouds from where we flew above. As our plane descended with a slow turn, we were afforded a closer view of a thick and continuous carpet of forests covering its mountains.

The flight from Manila—no, this entire trip since 8 months back when I was vacillating between indecision, reluctance (the reasons were personal) and feeling adventurous as I was until about 5 years ago—had begun to reap its rewards with these aerial views. Fully absorbed in my thoughts at the scenery below, I may have heard the pilot announce that we were to land in a few minutes. It already felt exhilarating.

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Overlooking what I later found out to be Hartman Road and beach

Closer still we flew overhead; closer but slower that I started to wonder what caused the idleness in the air. Anyhow, I was sort of making out where the airport was, or at least looked out for the airstrip because the slow casual turn was disorienting.

In any case, I was preoccupied with the central-eastern portion of the main Palawan island that is surrounded by the lightest and cleanest bed of sand beneath the coolest aquamarine waters I’ve ever seen live—that blue color I had only previously known in artificially-colored swimming pools. It was mesmerizing to see such a long stretch of it, almost all the way near the horizon.

So fixated was I on the waters just outside my window, in fact, that as the scene shuffled right-to-left in seconds—from cool blue to light beige sand, to corals and floating seaweeds, to rooftops just below wing-level–at the same time adjusting to our land-to-air distance and grasping at my bearings that the actual touchdown came as sort of a mild jolt.

And because the rubber kissed the pavement so smoothly, I can only smile with appreciation at the suave navigation of TigerAir’s pilots on the airstrip just almost 2 kms. long end-to-end. (For a few seconds there as I realized we had indeed landed, I missed the thrill and sensation of a touchdown’s direct contact.)

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Welcome arch on an overcast arrival day. I would have preferred its old tagline
"City within a forest" because, as I was to discover, it's pretty much what it is.

Puerto Princesa's proud ownership of the label "(the country's) cleanest and greenest city" is well observed by everyone; there are no piles of garbage even in the downtown area and trash bins are everywhere. In fact, penalties for littering are strictly imposed by virtue of its Oplan Linis instituted in 1992; one can be jailed for repeat offense. The city itself is loose about smoking despite its No Smoking ordinance and designated smoking zones are always provided for so long as cigarette butts, wrappers and small trash are disposed of properly.

DAY 1 - Booked at Puerto Pension Bed & Breakfast

We were booked at Puerto Pension Inn, a small but cozy compound on Malvar Street off the National Highway in Puerto Princesa City. Puerto Pension is about 1.5-minutes walk to the entrance of the city’s recently-established Baywalk, a shore-side strip reclaimed from shanties.

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(Taken on Day 3): Puerto Pension main entrance, Puerto Princesa City.

The upper half of the city’s towering Christmas tree erected on the Baywalk could be seen from Puerto Pension’s Tribu Café on the 4th floor if one were to face north-west, as do the ships from the waist up docked at the seaport towards the south-west.

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Holiday cheers: View from the 4/F Tribu Café of Puerto Princesa's Christmas tree
along its Baywalk scheduled for lighting on Dec. 8
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(Taken on Day 3): View from Puerto Pension's 4th-floor Café Tribu of the ships
docked at the seaport set against a backdrop of  the Thumbs Range where Iwahig is.

Across from Café Tribu can be seen profiles of the Thumb Mountain Range. Somewhere at the foot of the range lies the Iwahig community (they call the place a special barangay) where we were to go for some firefly evening show along Iwahig River on Day 2. The Iwahig River, an integral part of the Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm (est. 1904 by the Americans) not only serves as its natural territorial limits but is also home to a lush and diverse mangrove system and a shelter to some wild land and water faunas.

As we could have spent the past 7 months looking for an ideal place to lodge considering budget, accommodation, features and service, we did so only intently on the days following typhoon Yolanda’s havoc.

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Local ephemera at Puerto Pension's open-air front desk area.

May, Carla and Chingbee did go online to inquire about rates and such and some had been initiated by email (including Puerto Pension) but being the conscious travelers that we were, carefully weighing in budget and features, we took time to look for more options. (Carla and Chingbee already were in Palawan last year and stayed at a posh hotel in the heart of the city). We sort of also wanted this trip’s city accommodation to be a little different. It was important, too, that service include a tour of the city and the Underground River plus some other trips on the side.

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Key holder by the bedside lamp.
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Hammocks and greens.
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Fellow Palawan visitors at Puerto Pension.

Puerto Pension came as a last-minute choice and after going online to view photos, amenities and especially its rates, we unanimously went for it. For me, at least, the natural materials on walls and floors, open corridors and the garden setting simply brushed all other choices aside. There's also free wi-fi accessible from all rooms and floors.

Chingbee knew about Puerto Pension from her previous Palawan trip so her recommendation helped, too, not to mention that Puerto Pension is one of 20 Palawan-based hotels and resorts collectively known as the Frontier Group (FG) actively participating under the Zero Carbon Resort (ZCR) project.

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Please observe Puerto Pension's advisories.
They are an active member of the Zero Carbon Resorts (ZCR) project.

What the ZCR means to a facility like Puerto Pension is that it actually implements green technology for its power consumption. At Puerto Pension, water for our shower is from collected and filtered rain water. Air conditioning is turned on or off by a key card one inserts or takes out in case the ceiling fan is preferred ventilation, and hot shower is powered by solar energy. At its 4th-floor Cafe Tribu Restaurant and Bar where complimentary breakfast is served, wide windows on 3 sides provide not only a great view of the outdoors but fresh wind and natural light in the daytime.

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Puerto Pension garden and room corridors in the background.
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With part of the day's loot from shopping souvenirs and before preparing for our first dinner out.
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Puerto Pension's top-floor Café Tribu for a quiet pre-dinner sit-down.
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Arriving late to an open and quiet place from a night out with friends on Day 1.

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One happy visitor packing for the next destination with positive memories of this place to bring around.

In general, water for washing in Puerto Princesa is from its rivers, and particularly in the Pension's case, caution is advised with regards washing clothes and use of strong detergents.

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As usual, me shooting the shooter. Puerto Pension open-air front desk; staff pose in
local regalia for Mike's camera before we set off for Sabang.
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My answer to the questions on the fliers would be this blog.

Link references on this post:
▸ Wikimedia: Philippines Territorial map Scarborough Shoal stand-off sparks protests | 2012
 The Mandala Projects: Taylor Markwith:
Conflict in the Scarborough Shoal between China and the Philippines: Climate Change's Role | June 2013
 S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS): Huy Duong:
The Scarborough Shoal dispute: Legal issues and implications (PDF) | 2012
China Threatens Philippines With “Any Means Necessary”in Scarborough Shoal Naval Standoff | 2012 Max Fisher: Here’s the Chinese passport map that’s infuriating much of Asia | 2012 Puerto Pension ZCR Report (PDF)

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