Hello Bohol: A Day Around Panglao

One full day itinerary for my Philippine holiday included a driving tour of the smaller island of Panglao. I’d had the chance to drive up to Bohol, I’d had a lazy beach day, and Thursday was my day to find as many points of interested on Panglao as I could. As always, I’m drawn to water, so I found a couple of lakes, one of them underground. I made it back to visit the bees and learn more about the local plants. I saw one of the most expensive and tiniest seashells in the world, and I witnessed my very first “fire rainbow”. What’s a fire rainbow? I guess you just have to read to the end, now.


Hinagdanan Cave

I’ve read that there are a multitude of caves around Panglao, but it seems that most of them are not set up for the safety and convenience of visitors. Several of the ones that are visitor friendly were too far to drive this trip. A few others are exclusive to certain resorts who restrict their private cave spa to their guests, and yet more that are only accessible to divers. Hinagdanan is easily the most famous of all of these, and the advice I’d read online was get there early if you want to swim (before it gets crowded). The reviews on the swimming were mixed, and by the time I finished researching it, I had no idea what to expect. We found the cave entrance easily enough and pulled into shady parking spots amid a hoard of souvenir stalls and snack stands and then bought our tickets. The entrance fee is quite low, but there is an additional fee for swimming. The whole thing is only a couple dollars US. Everything that is maintained (cleaned) has a small entrance fee, but none of them are onerous, and they do seem to be well cared for.

20171005_092425.jpgWe signed the guest book and the guides at the top of the entrance offered to keep an eye on our helmets while we went down. The stairwell looks like a black hole into nothingness, and the cave entrance is more like a sinkhole than a cave mouth. The stairs are steep, but sturdy and have a handrail, and it’s a short trip down. Once inside, there’s plenty of room to stand up straight and look around. It’s a small cavern with some lovely, though not stunning formations. The main attractions are the natural skylight that fills the cavern with the warm light of the sun like a spotlight, and the beautiful crystal clear pool. Looking at the water, I couldn’t understand why anyone had complained about it in the reviews. I suppose it’s possible that weather or too many swimmers might have clouded it up during their visit, but for us, just past opening time, the water was still, blue, and so clear that every rock on the bottom was visible even in the dim cavern.20171005_092702.jpg

We decided at once that swimming had been a great choice, and found a little outcrop to put our things before entering the water. There’s obviously been some man-made construction: stairs, a railing and a little platform to make getting in and out easier. The water was cool and soothing on my sunburnt skin. The bats were mostly sleeping, but occasionally we could hear a squeak or a wing-beat from our neighbors in the ceiling. The water is technically brackish, and I did hear a guide tell someone else that, but all that means is that it is a mix of fresh and sea water, not that it is somehow dirty. You wouldn’t want to drink it, and only mangrove plants are adapted to use it to live on, but it’s absolutely fine for swimming.20171005_093137.jpg

We tootled around in the underground pool for well over an hour. Often we had the cavern to ourselves, but a couple times, the guides brought groups of tourists in who just wanted to have a look and get some photos. The famous photo op there is to stand under the skylight and do a trick shot that makes you look like a saint. A few people waded through the shallow water around the steps, but no one else came in to swim. I took a million photos, and at the time my display screen showed the beautiful clear and turqouise pool, but when I looked back again later they were all black. It reminded me of a story from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld where people can be fooled by illusions, but the photoboxes can only see what’s truly there. I enjoyed the slightly chilling idea that I’d spent the morning in inky black water that was enchanted by some creature to make it seem blue and welcoming, but it turns out my companion’s pictures worked out a little better, and we do have a small amount of photographic evidence after all.20171005_094451.jpg

Songculan Lake

Although I felt like I could spend the whole day in that cool and quiet swimming cave, the time came to move on if I wanted to see the rest of the itinerary before dark, and we got back on the road feeling peaceful and refreshed. My next stop was a large lake that I’d only seen on the map and not found any mention of in other tourism websites. It’s called Songculan Lake, and it’s so close to the cave that it seemed like a shame to not at least go and look at while we were up there. The road that runs along the lake doesn’t afford much of a view since the lake is mostly blocked off by mangrove jungle.

20171005_110603.jpgWe drove around in hopes of getting a glimpse of the water or perhaps some boating opportunity, but mostly what we found was a kind of upscale neighborhood where the people seemed rather surprised to see us. It seemed not unlike other lakefront neighborhoods, and we still had no view of the water which I presumed was visible from the back windows of these beautiful houses. At last we came up to the bridge that crosses the narrow point where the river meets the lake and we got our viewing spot.

20171005_111720.jpgI’m sure everyone thought we were nuts for pulling over and walking out on the bridge to take pictures, but it was very pretty, and we’d driven over there more or less just to find out if there was anything to see at all. At the far end of the bridge I found a staircase that led down to a shaded swimming area in the lake, but it was occupied by a local family and I wasn’t entirely sure of the etiquette so I waved politely and moved on.

 

Bohol Bee Farm Tour

20171005_133031We went back to the Bee Farm for lunch and the “tour”. Arnold, our guide, started us out with a little cooking lesson in the herb garden where we played “name that herb”. I recognized nearly all of them, but the oregano completely stumped me. What? Oregano? How hard is that to spot? Yeah, but this crazy Filipino oregano was completely different with HUGE leaves. The guide asked the names of each plant in English, Tagalog, and Boholano, and when we got to the oregano and everyone saw how surprised we were, we had to explain the differences in the plant’s appearance in Europe and America versus the one growing in the Philippines. Arnold said he’d heard about that but never seen the European varieties. Behind him ranged a huge display of potted herbs with their names displayed, and I recognized most, but had to ask about Pandan.

Pandan is an aromatic, used to add fragrance to things like rice, and it can be used to repel cockroaches, which I thought was interesting. Later I saw it in the ice cream flavors, and now that I’ve read this article, I’m kind of sad I didn’t eat it when I had the chance.

20171005_134343.jpgOnce we were finished in the herb garden, we moved over to the manufacturing areas. Arnold explained that while they do use as many of their own ingredients as possible, the farm has grown too large for them to do tours of the farmland itself anymore. We saw the bakery where they made the wonderful squash bread. We saw the creamery where they were busy making ice cream, sadly it smelled like Durian was the flavor of the moment. And we saw the prepping areas where they made and packaged the teas, honeys, and other goodies used in the restaurant and sold in the gift shop.

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In addition to foods, we got to see some of the other manufacturing they do including the hand woven raffia, mostly mats and wall hangings they grow from a tree locally called “buri” which is more widely known as the coryphe, a type of palm tree native to the Philippines, the leaves of which can be stripped and dried to make the fibers used in weaving. We got to watch one of the ladies doing traditional weaving, a method that can only produce a few feet of material in a workday, but is preserved as part of the local cultural heritage. We also met the seamstresses who turn the woven fabric into bags and other goods to be sold, as well as some furniture restoration where young men worked to give new life to old chairs using the woven raffia and palm leaves.

At last, it was time to meet the bees. Although the majority of the hives had been moved away from the restaurant and hotel, they kept two on hand for the local gardens and for the tourists. These aren’t Philippine bees, but European honey bees, the most docile honey producers available. Arnold had us stand a decent way back from the hives and gave us a serious talk about safety, warning us especially not to swat at any bees who happened to fly around or land on us because it could trigger defensive behavior and result in some major stinging. He also reassured us there was a clinic there on hand just in case. Finally, he went to pull some bees out for us to have a closer look, and boy were we in luck. Not only were these the most chilled out bees ever (not even one took off and tried to investigate us), we got to see the queen in the very first tray that came out!

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As you most likely know, there is only one queen per hive and she never emerges except to swarm, so seeing the queen is pretty special. Although she is visually different from the other bees, that bright turquoise spot is added on by her human caretakers to make it easier to spot her when they’re harvesting honey or doing hive maintenance. Once we all oooohed and aaahed over the royalty, everyone in the group was offered a chance to hold the tray full of bees and pose for photos. Arnold was very careful to hand off the tray gently and with safe gripping spots. At first I was hesitant, but when even the little Boholano grannies did it, and not a single bee was perturbed, I decided it was ok to have a go. It was silly fun and I’m glad I did it.

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On our way back into the gift shop, I passed a curious looking fruit and snapped a photo to ask about it inside. I was told it was called a “mickey mouse” fruit, but that it wasn’t really a fruit like for eating. Once I got back to the internet and had a bit of a rummage around, it turns out that it is the solanum mammosum, also called “utong” which is Tagalog for “nipple” and took me to some strange search results before I finally figured it out.

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Back inside the gift shop, we went and had a few more samples of our favorites from the last evening visit, as well as sampling a few new things. My top new discovery here was a thing called “hard honey”. It wasn’t crystallized honey, which sometimes happens when I forget about a jar in the back of my cabinet, but instead a liquid with a dark color and a texture like soft taffy or thick molasses. Indeed, it tasted a little bit like molasses would if it was made from honey, and my deep need to know things was immediately satisfied by the knowledgeable staff and helpful signs.

Hard honey is a thing that happens when honey stays in a hive for a while and ages. Hive aged honey. I assume the texture is a result of evaporation? And it would seem that the unique flavor is a combination of the honey taking in the flavors around it and a slight fermentation. Either way, it was a magnificent new taste experience which I recommend.

Nova Shell Museum

20171005_153024After lunch I went in search of the Nova Shell Museum, because I like seashells and museums. The whole area of Bohol is filled with tiny little roadside tourist attractions that are so cheesy and cost 20-60p to go see. I realize looking back on this experience that there is a high probability I enjoyed these because they reminded me of the random roadside attractions that we would sometimes visit on road trips when I was a kid. The US has (had? I’m not sure how many are still there) a huge number of tiny local sights setup for families to stop and look at while stretching their legs or getting a snack. None are sights that are destinations in and of themselves but they are fun to see if you’re passing by. This is how I felt about the Shell Museum. Would I have driven out of my way for it? Probably not, but it was right there next to one of my go to restaurants (La Familia) and only a few minutes drive from our hotel, so why not?

This is not a museum the way that I usually think of them. It is, in fact, the private collection of a Mr. Quirino Hora who has been obsessively collecting shells for more than 50 years and likes to show them off at this tiny building in Panglao. It is said that he collected many of them himself around the various islands of the Philippines, but he has also purchased several. My guide, because you cannot go anywhere without one of those, was clearly instructed to make sure that visitors understood the price and rarity of the shells on display. It was this emphasis on price tags that made me ask about the collection’s owner in the first place, finding it less and less likely that this was some kind of government run museum. I have nothing against private collectors, and I think it’s nice that he’s decided to share this stunning collection, but “museum” might be a bit misleading.

I remember going into the stone and gem rooms in the Smithsonian as a kid and seeing case after case, and drawers and drawers of cases of samples of different rocks all carefully labeled. It was like that, but with shells. Shells were put in groups and there were tiny tags for labels that were mostly taxonomic with the scientific name, the “author” (I’m not sure what that means in context of a shell), and a location and depth at which the shell was found. Sadly, I just don’t know enough about shells for the tags to tell me much, but I did enjoy looking at the huge array of shapes and colors including some naturally party colored scallop shells, some stunningly large nautilus, a kind of critter that liked to decorate it’s shells with the smaller shells of other animals, and three enormous shells of giant clams which I have seen in the wild, but only at about a 10th the size of these monsters.

The pride of the collection is an extremely tiny shell found in Panglao and named after the Emperor of Japan, and the two shells that Mr. Hora discovered himself and are so named after him. They range in value from a few dollars to millions. There are rooms and rooms stacked with shells in cases, behind glass, on shelves, in drawers and eventually just in boxes. Like any worthy tour, it let out in the gift shop where the more common shells were sold whole or made into art and jewelry for sale. Outside the gift-shop, there was a small tree house I was invited to climb around and explore and they talked with me about the museum’s plans for expansion.

Fire Rainbow

20171006_172421.jpgThat night we went back to the Pearl at Linaw for a sunset diner on the beach.  I spent more or less the entire vacation being in absolute awe of the cloud formations that piled up in fluffy mountains around our island, and this night was no exception. I got up from the table several times to walk the few meters to the water’s edge and get the most unobstructed sunset views possible. However, we got treated to something a little more than your average (stunning) tropical sunset. As the sun worked it’s way downward, I noticed an odd smudge of color at the top of the tower of clouds. I thought that it was that beautiful golden lining effect that so often happens when the sun back-lights dark clouds. I took more photos, admiring the glow and the strong beam-like shadow that was being cast into the sky.20171006_172654.jpg

As I watched, more colors than gold began to appear. Soon I could see a tinge of green and purple. And then an entire rainbow spectrum appeared in the crown of light atop this cloud. It did not look like a rainbow, for it lacked the shape and stripes. It looked if anything as though a rift in the space time continuum had opened up. I had no idea what could be causing this unique and stunning visual effect, but I stayed standing on the beach, food forgotten, alternating between taking photos and simply staring in awe until the colored halo receded. Only then did I return to my table to eat, venturing forth once more when the sunset clouds became a brilliant pink.20171006_173842.jpg

Back in Korea, I was finally able to research this atmospheric oddity, and I have discovered that I apparently witnessed something rare and special, well, I knew it was special, but I had no idea how rare. It’s called an “iridescent cloud” or sometimes a “fire rainbow”, and it, like other rainbows is caused by sunlight refracting through water, but this variety generally only happens on hot, humid days with lots of cumulus clouds. Only the tall piles of clouds like I had been admiring on my trip get high enough to cool the warm air and condense into droplets forming the cap, or “pileus”, creating the disc of color that I saw. According to National Geographic, not only is it rare to see such a phenomenon, photos are even rarer. I feel amazingly lucky to have had the opportunity for both!

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Even though it’s a small island with no cities, I found Panglao enchanting and found that 9 days wasn’t even enough to see everything. I’ve been thinking a lot about my island adventures this January, not only because it’s so very cold in Busan, but because I’ve sacrificed my winter holiday this year in favor of running around Korea doing job interviews. Sometime in March when that hair-pulling adventure is wrapped up, I’ll share all the crazy details, but until then I’ll share my memories of Bohol to keep us all warm.

Hello Bohol: Balicasag with the Turtles

Bohol is especially well known for the excellent diving spots, including Balicasag and it’s famous sea turtle conclave. I had hoped to take a diving certification course while there this year, but alas, my root canals ate that budget and I had to settle for some stunning snorkeling instead. Join me on a little sailing jaunt under deep blue skies to a world of magical coral reefs, tiny territory defenders, and lazy giants. Bonus: this time I managed to actually take some of my own photos underwater!


Choose Wisely

When I was planning this trip, an old high school buddy who now lives in Manila told me, “you have to go to Balicasag, it’s like a sea turtle old boys club down there”. I love snorkeling, and the chance to meet amazing and rare sea creatures in their home turf is not to be missed. However, it can be tricky to make sure you’re doing the responsible thing. I had already made the decision not to see the whale sharks at Oslob because of the environmental impact on the animals, but I was excited about Balicasag. As far as I could find, there are no damaging practices that draw the turtles there, they just like it.

While trying to make my plan of attack, I read a few dozen similarly disappointing stories of snorkeling and island hopping around Panglao online, most of which shared three basic themes:

  • You’re rushed when you don’t want to be and sitting around doing nothing other times
  • You’re stuck haggling over prices and then dealing with hidden fees and expectations of tips even with lousy service
  • The standard island hopping tour is not a good way to do snorkeling

The best experiences came from people who were lucky enough to find a private boat owner to drive them for the day where and when they wanted to go (very hit or miss), or from the people who went as tag-a-longs with a diving group.

This advice led me to Sierra Madre divers (the people who published that article on the whale sharks I linked to and teachers of marine preservation diving classes). Sadly, they were booked solid for the whole week with Chinese tourists in for the holiday. The guide was very kind, despite his overfilled schedule, and introduced us to his neighbor Rafi at Valm Dive with whom we made a verbal reservation.

20171003_134327.jpgRegardless of who you choose to go with, make sure you ask about any extra fees for Balicasag. Some activities do require paying the national park fee and others don’t. It’s never fun to be caught by surprise once your in the ocean. Valm Dive wasn’t planning to go to any of the pay areas, and so we were only on the hook for our ride and equipment (mask and snorkel only, no fins. I think they would have let us use them if they had extra, but they had to supply the divers first and ran out). Total cost: 500p or about 10$ USD.

A Three Hour Tour?

20171003_082402That morning was one of the few rains that happened during our active times. On any other morning, we could have just waited for it to stop, but Rafi had told us to be at the dive shop at 8:30 and we didn’t want to be late and run the risk of losing our spot on the boat. We waited as long as possible, and it didn’t take long for the downpour to become a drizzle. Driving on the wet roads wasn’t nearly as difficult as I feared, but getting a face full of rain made seeing a little challenging. I thought again about what kind of gear to use to prevent that if I ever had to drive a real distance in the rain, but it seemed like all the locals, in addition to shunning helmets, only wore ponchos while driving in the rain, leaving their faces, and eyes, open to the wet.

Despite the rain, we showed up at the shop at 8:30 as we’d been told, and although Rafi was running around like a nut getting things ready, he spotted us eventually and gave us a friendly good morning and made sure things were set for us too.

Nothing starts on time here, and there’s no point in worrying about it. While we waited, the rain cleared up and the sky began its transition from gray to a deep vault-of-heaven blue filled with towering, crisp edged cumulus clouds. It wasn’t long after that when we all boarded the boat. This involved walking through the shallow water to a ladder on the side. I underestimated the depth and rolling up my pants was not enough to keep them dry.20171003_085545.jpg

Our boat mates included a very serious Japanese man who seemed to have a personal assistant with him taking care of his every need, but not diving herself (she was Filipina and had a tourism badge on, so I feel safe calling this as an employer/employee interaction). There was a Chinese couple who had some intense underwater photography rigs. It made me wonder if they were professional photographers on assignment. And finally and Australian couple who seemed just to be out to have fun. None of them were beginners.

A word about the boats

In Thailand we rode on the longtails nearly everywhere, and by now you’ve probably seen a few boats in my beach photos and have noticed that these boats are quite unique. The Filipino outrigger canoe style, called bangka or bangcas, is distinguished by the two slender bamboo poles on either side called katig. They help to balance the boat, and also mean the main boat needs less keel and can be lighter weight while still being ocean stable. Sailing versions are called paraw or parao. The outrigger canoe plan is most used by Filipino, Malay, Micronesian, Melanesian and Polynesian people today.

20171003_115304.jpgThe Wall

Balicasag is tiny island some 40 minutes to the south of Alona Beach. I never set foot on it, so I can’t tell you how it is. Our dive boat stopped first at a reef called “the wall” because there was a goodly stretch of shallow reef and a sharp drop off that for the divers below was actually a rising wall. We were asked to wait until all the divers were in the water and then given about 45 minutes to do all the snorkeling we liked. They pointed out some Chinese snorkelers a little bit away, and warned us about the current before turning us loose.

20171003_101601.jpgThe corals were lovely, and I wasn’t in a hurry to get anywhere in particular. It was my first real chance to play around with my new underwater photo taking capability. Almost as soon as we got in the water, I spotted my first turtle hugging the edge of the drop off. I did my best to keep pace with him, but especially swimming against the current, I had no real hope of catching up to a turtle, no matter how lazily he seemed to be swimming. Finally, I had to give up. I swam using as little energy as possible, but it was hard going because the current was much stronger than I was used to and it was impossible to hold still while taking a picture.

20171003_100627I wove back and forth above the stunning coral shapes, trying to get my camera to focus when I was spotted by a little rainbow wrasse, maybe 5 inches long. It was clearly watching me, swimming back and forth in front of me in quick zipping lines, and once it was sure it had my attention too, it swam straight at my face. I was honestly worried it was going to hit my mask, not for my safety, it was a small harmless fish, but worried that it might hurt itself bashing into the plastic. Fortunately at the last moment it turned aside.

20171003_102013It seemed like a strange behavioral anomaly, but the fish came back and did it several more times. As I got used to the pattern I tried to get a picture. I wish I could have done a video, but I hadn’t quite figured out the trick I needed for that with the waterproof cover.

Eventually I let it chase me away and went on exploring more beautiful coral shapes. I got so focused on getting a working photo that I drifted into a whole shoal of fish without realizing, and at one point when I looked up I was entirely surrounded by tiny flashing fish bodies, not unlike being in a blizzard. I saw larger fish in the hazy waters just past the drop off, fading in and out of the misty darkness. At one point there was a school of silver fish that were more round than narrow and as they passed between me and the dark open ocean beyond, they reminded me of nothing so much as cherry blossoms falling in the wind at night.

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Less Coral, More Turtles

All too soon it was time to swim back to the boat, a healthy challenge in the current without fins, but we made it and the boat moved off to the pick up point for the divers. They had to spend an hour on the boat between dives, but the snorkelers have no such restrictions. We were invited to head back into the water while they waited. The pick up point was not as interesting as the drop off had been, but the water was cool and refreshing and it was nice to just float around and watch the few fish that were braving the desert landscape between reefs. I saw a few more turtles there as well. Despite the poor quality of my pictures, the in person experience was captivating. The water was so clear that I could see the patterns on their shells and fins. I watched each one that passed through as they dug in the sand or chewed plant life growing on the bottom. We also saw a couple turtles surface for a breath once we were back on board.20171003_110919.jpg

The second dive site for the day was all about the turtles. The divers started getting ready well before their hour was up so they could hop back in the sea as soon as it was safe. Once more, we waited for everyone to get in and head off to the goal. Apparently, there is a sort of sea turtle metropolis down there, and we were parked over in turtle exurbs. I’d already seen more sea turtles in the first two stops than I’ve ever seen in the wild before, so I didn’t mind too much.

At first I was a little disappointed because there were still no corals like we’d seen at the first stop. I didn’t want to head too far from the boat, as my last two trips had resulted in very tiring swims against a strong current to get back and I didn’t want to risk getting too worn out in the ocean. However one of the boat hands came in the water while I was swimming and began helping me spot turtles. The first one was chased avidly by a nearby boat of Chinese tourists. A couple others passed by too far for a good look, but then a giant beauty showed up right beneath us. The guide held my elbow to keep me steady so I could try for a better photo, and then when the turtle began to swim away, he motioned me to follow and we swam under the boat to keep the turtle in sight.20171003_121442.jpg

Unlike the turtle the Chinese tourists were chasing which was close to the surface, this one was on the bottom and I was not about to try to free dive to reach it, so I don’t think we were being invasive. We followed it for a few minutes and I managed to get some of the best photos of the day as well as a short video clip. Of course, my phone in a plastic waterproof bag has an upper limit on quality, but I was excited about it.

Finally, I put the camera down and just watched. When the turtle swam on again we didn’t follow but returned to the boat where we motored over to the final pick up point of the day.

With the divers back on board, we made the return journey to Panglao. I happily gazed into the horizon watching the monumental cloud formations and being totally oblivious to the horrendous sunburn I was developing.

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If I Could Change One Thing?

Ideally, if I went back it would be with the time, money, and intention of actually getting my PADI certification and going on those dives, but if it turns out that snorkeling is on the table, then just two main changes: wear a shirt! No amount of sunscreen is enough. I think the reason I didn’t burn on the snorkel trip in Thailand is that it was overcast (and yes, UV happens on overcast days) which meant there was no reflection off the water as there is on sunny days which massively magnifies the cooking power. And get fins. Again in Thailand although it was tricky at first, it was not a hindrance to go without fins because the water was calm. But the current around Balicasag was intense, almost like swimming in one of those resistance pools, I had to swim as hard as I could just to make any forward progress at all, even gentle swimming could result in me drifting backwards.

The massive burn did teach me one interesting fact about fashion. I now know the only valid excuse for a tube top. I don’t own any, but I had to fold down a regular tank top to wear in tube top style for the next several days in order to avoid horrible pain. Thanks mom, for always making us wear shirts over our swimsuits at the beach!

Don’t miss out on the photo album over on the book of faces.

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