Hello Bohol: Loboc River

There are a couple large famous rivers on the island of Bohol, and we were slightly closer to the Loboc than the Abatan. In the end, reviews and photos make it seem like these rivers and their cruise options are so similar that ease of location seemed to be the best tie breaker. Thus it was that I found myself on the Loboc twice this trip: once by night for a firefly tour, and once by day for a lunch cruise. Both experiences were enjoyable in uniquely different ways.


Fireflies by Night

20171005_180252The only actual tour I signed up for in the whole 9 day holiday was the firefly tour. After my experience in Surat Thani, I wanted to see more, and I wanted my travel buddy to have a chance to experience the wonders of fireflies in the mangroves. We decided to go with a group because the price including pick up was only 700p, and then we wouldn’t have to worry about driving ourselves in the dark. I can’t tell you what company we used because our hostess Becca made the arrangements for us. The van was a little late, but again, it seemed everything in Bohol is slow, so I didn’t let it worry me, and soon enough we were on our way. I ended up sitting next to some Koreans and we chatted a bit on the drive up to the river. They were of course also on the same Chuseok holiday I was, but had already been to a couple other places in the Philippines and had done all the major sites in Bohol in just 2 days, including a dive! They were leaving for Manila the next morning and couldn’t imagine how I was spending my whole holiday on just this one tiny island.

20171005_192741.jpgWhen we arrived, it was at a small riverside dock where several other drivers also unloaded vans full of tourists and we were herded onto a large boat in the Loboc river. Once all aboard, we drove up into the mangroves. The night was amazingly beautiful. It happened to be a full moon and the river was wide enough to make a space around us and let the moonlight illuminate the trees and mountains in pale blue. The night air was warm, but the wind of the boat’s passage kept us cool and bug free. I was a little put off by the huge crowd, but it was a beautiful night and I was enjoying the scenery nonetheless. People had pointed to one or two lone flashes, wondering if that was the bugs we were coming to see, but of course it was not.

At one point the guide flashed his light high up into some palm trees and the light reflected off of dozens of shining things. I knew it couldn’t be the fireflies, which are bio-luminescent and not reflective, and which also don’t live in palms, only the mangrove apple. But I had no idea what could cause the reflective twinkling. In post vacation research mode, I found one lone reference to migrating birds sleeping in the nina palms along the river, so I’m guessing that it was their sleeping bodies the guide was illuminating for us?

Finally we came around a bend and were greeted with the christmas tree blinking of a firefly colony. I think if you want the best description, it’s better to go read my Surat Thani experience. This was really beautiful, but my experience of the beauty here was detracted from somewhat by a few things. One, the boat drivers actually ran the boat into the tree on purpose to get us as close to the blinking insects as possible (and I fear to agitate them into a better display, which is backward because they flash less when threatened). Two, every single person on the boat instantly stood up and raised phones and go-pros on sticks to try to get the best photos and videos of the tree. I know that low-light tech has improved a lot, but I also know that none of them have any images that will come close to the real thing. It made me a little sad that it was more about pictures than memories.

I stood too, because there was no other way to see. With the boat in their space, most of the fireflies retreated to the top of the tree, and blinked, as the others had, in near unison, but with one major difference from the ones in Thailand: they streaked. Perhaps because so many had been disturbed and taken to the air, or perhaps they just have a different blink time, but these bugs stayed lit long enough that a small portion of their flight path was illuminated creating the illusion of a thousand tiny shooting stars. My video, alas, only serves to highlight the terrible night capture my phone has. Maybe I should start a GoFundMe for a better camera…

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Once everyone had their photos, there was a chorus from the passengers to get going, and I rather expected us to move on forward to another glowing tree. After all, in ST, we were on the river for close to an hour and saw dozens of glowing trees. However, as we disentangled from the tree, we headed instead back toward the dock. The whole journey, more than an hour of driving, and the moonlight cruise up the river (which, yes, was nice for it’s own sake) were all for this single tree and brief 10 minute photo op. I thought about all the other times I’d seen the Chinese and Koreans on holiday do something similar: travel a long way to take a photo or two and then move on. I love my photos too, I like taking them, and I like looking at them later or sharing them on social media, but I still try every time I travel to take some time at every stop to put the camera down and just *live* in that moment. Otherwise all that photo will remind me of is taking the photo.

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I tried not to be ungrateful as we returned that night. It was hard for me not to compare my experience in ST to this one and feel very let down. I tried instead to focus on the good parts. The comet effect of the insects was stunning. The full moon on the river and the jungle was an absolute treat. It turns out that nearly every firefly tour in Bohol is like this, big crowded boat, one tree for photos, done. The best thing I could have done if I wanted a quiet peaceful personal experience with lots of trees full of lights would have been to go on one of the kayaking private tours, but there was no way that I was going to wield a kayak paddle until my back became less crispy, so this really was the best I could hope for. The good news is, now that they know tourists will pay to see fireflies, the locals have stopped cutting down the trees they live in and are working on restoring the mangrove’s environmental balance to bring more back, so spending money on this is contributing to the preservation of mangrove habitat.

Tourism is a tough balancing act because if they don’t have enough money, they can’t make it nice. If it get’s too popular, they can’t keep it ecologically healthy. If they make more money destroying the environment than they do showing it off, they’ll follow the money. People gotta live. It’s our role as privileged travelers to spend our money on things that encourage responsible growth and preservation while helping the local economy, and I think if nothing else, the firefly tours on Bohol do that.

This tour was also a good example of expectations vs reality defining an experience. I had no particular expectation of what I’d see in ST, and it blew my mind. But I had to at least slightly compare my first experience to the one in Bohol, and I ended up being perhaps less than stunned because it didn’t match my mental image. I don’t want to let this stop me from doing things twice or in different places, but I hope it reminds me to hold back my expectations and come to each experience as fresh as possible.

Lunch Boat by Day

Another must do on the tourist itinerary of Bohol is a daytime river cruise. I chose the Loboc River Floating Restaurant Cruise. By this time, I knew what a meal should cost, and 450p for a good lunch plus a cruise and a show is well worth it. Reviews told us that the food was decent, and they did not lie. It was not the best meal I had on the trip, but everything was good and it’s a buffet so you can eat as much as you like, as long as you don’t leave food on your plate (they charge 50p for leftovers to discourage food waste). You can read more about it on the food post for this trip.

Unless you join a tour group, there doesn’t seem to be a way to get tickets in advance, so I aimed early and arrived at the tourism center at 11am. On my way into the parking lot I was issued a “priority number”. I gather this is so that people can then buy tickets in the order they arrive without having to stand in a long line.

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I pocketed the numbers and wandered around the little shopping area, taking in the repetitive souvenirs and trying in vain to find an iced coffee (no such luck). I never ended up buying any stuff, because I’m already loaded down with more things than I know what to do with, but I was tickled by the mash-up of the famous Starbucks logo with Bohol’s famous Tarsier, and I think if I’d been in the market for a new t-shirt, this would have been it.

When I at last headed to the ticket counter, I was at first rebuffed, but when they saw the priority number (issued some 30 minutes earlier and probably already called in the waiting area), I was quickly herded to the cashier and directed toward the lunch boat. Lunch was served as we boarded, giving everyone the chance to fill their plates and do some serious eating while still at the dock. At first I though it a bit strange, but I realized once we started moving that it was a good plan after all, since it got most people seated before the boat was in motion, and it meant that we weren’t dividing our attention between the food and the view.

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Somehow, I lucked out unreasonably, and got a table at the very front edge of the boat. I don’t think there are actual bad tables, since each one seemed to be on the front or one of the sides. The middle was occupied with the buffet, and the rear of the boat held the bar and a small stage where we were serenaded with acoustic renditions of English, Chinese, and Japanese popular songs. The musician was pretty good and I felt his songs added to the overall experience that day, so left a generous tip in his basket when it came around.

20171006_114514.jpgI took lots of photos, most of which are nearly identical in retrospect, and a few videos which I’ve managed to string together to give a general impression of the experience (see below). My seat provided an unrivaled view of both sides and a constant breeze that kept me cool and comfortable. Boat staff offered to take pictures (with my own camera, not as a souvenir gimmick), and when I was ready to go get my seconds of maja blanca, I offered my spot at the railing to a young lady with a very serious camera who I thought would appreciate the vantage point while I wasn’t using it.

20171006_115341.jpgWe pottered down the river, admiring the plants and scoping out some other floating platforms where we theorized the dance performances would be held. At one point, I began to notice lamp posts along the riverside, seemingly alone in the jungle. I suppose that there may have once been a path there, perhaps wiped out by the 2013 earthquake or just by the changing course of the river, but it was more than a little Narnian to see a perfectly normal lamppost in the woods.

Our outward tour ended at a small waterfall where we paused long enough to make sure everyone on board got a good look and a photo op, then we turned around and headed back the way we came.

20171006_115421If you’ve ever been up and down a river, you’ll appreciate that the view on the way back is not actually the same as the view on the way out, so I didn’t mind at all. Plus, on the way back we pulled up to one of the floating platforms and got treated to some local traditional dancing. The sign indicated the dance is called Kuradang, which seems to be a kind of dance used at many celebrations in Bohol. It likely started before the Spanish colonization but has just as likely been influenced over the centuries. It’s still special here, though, because it’s considered to be a uniquely Boholano dance.

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My lunch partner got up from our table to see if she could get a closer view for photos and was quickly stolen onto the dance floor.  I couldn’t just leave her there alone (plus, I had to get pictures of her being silly), so I followed and was soon dancing with the performers myself. We joined in the Kuradang in the portion where male and female partners sort of circle around one another. I did my best to follow my ersatz dance partner, who knew the steps much better than I. I’ve watched a few competition videos since and I can say that while I do feel that we were doing the same dance, that we were also doing only the most simple beginners steps. The gentlemen we danced with were very polite and hands off and we all had a breathlessly good time. After the music stopped, we were invited to sit there on the platform to watch the next dance: the tinikling.

Tinikling is much easier to find information about online since it’s practiced all over the Philippines, not just in Bohol. It’s also dated to the Spanish colonial era, but I don’t believe it came from Spain, merely that it developed across the Philippines during their occupation. (Kind of like how Riverdancing style developed in Ireland in response to British occupation?) I got a much better video of this dance, since I was now seated right next to the stage. It’s a dance involving two long bamboo sticks being slapped on the ground to make both the drum beat and a jumping challenge for the dancers. It was a bit like the complicated jump rope routines I could never master as a child, and also reminded me of some of the stick jumping dances I’d seen the Maori do in New Zealand.

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Once the main performance concluded, the dancers once again urged us forward. This time, I went first and tried my best to imitate the foot movements of my teacher. She was patient but of course it was a performance as well, so after only two practice toe taps, they started the bamboo moving (slowly) and I tried to follow the pattern. Oops for me, we’d only practiced the right foot, and suddenly I realized I had no idea what to do with my left! Fortunately the bamboo wielders were paying close attention and did not snap the poles on my leg. We reset our position and started again, and I managed to get the rhythm for about seven seconds before losing it again and begging my way off the stage. I won’t say this is an easy dance to master, but I was also going sans bra to spare my sunburnt back and I was more than a little worried that the energetic bouncing would cause a wardrobe malfunction.

Finally, we were released back to our seats on board, breathless and excited. I felt completely ridiculous but I also realized that we’d probably had the best time of anyone on board because we were willing to throw dignity to the wind and act like children. We bid the dancers farewell and thanked them for the joy (with words and a generous tip) and then the boat moved on, bringing us back to the pier where we began.

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I don’t know what I had expected from a lunchtime river cruise, and I suppose at least a little bit of every experience has a reflection of what you put into it, but it turned out to not only be a lovely meal (where I learned about a new food) and a beautiful view (getting to see the same river by moonlight and midday), but also a personal dance lesson in traditional Bohol and Philippino folk dancing. Definitely worth the cover charge.

 

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Hello Bohol: Chocolate Hills & Tarsiers

Two of the most famous sites in Bohol are the Chocolate Hills and the adorable miniature primates, the tarsiers. No trip to the island is complete without a stop to see these unique wonders. In this post, I explore not only the famous hills, and two different tarsier sanctuaries, but also a few nearby stops like the mahogany forest, and one of the many adventure parks. As a bonus, I’ve included some native pre-Catholic mythology about the hills and the tiny monkeys.


Bilar Manmade Forest

Monday (day 3) was the longest drive of the trip, all the way from the southern tip of Panglao to the Chocolate Hills in the center of Bohol. We rode through rice fields, palm jungles, and tiny villages where dogs and chickens meandered freely and residents laid the recently harvested rice on plastic sheets on the side of the road to dry.

As the road turned inland, it passed suddenly into a strange and out of place landscape. Everything in Bohol is tropical: beaches, mangroves, jungles, rice fields. All at once we were in a temperate zone forest of mahogany trees. The sunlight was cut more than half, and the air was cool and dim. We pulled over to marvel at the view, and I realized that we must be in the Manmade Mahogany Forest.

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The Bilar Manmade Mahogany Forest is listed as a stop on many Bohol tours, and I saw on the map that it was on the road to the Chocolate Hills, so I planned to see it on the same day. I have since learned that there is no park-like infrastructure at all. The forest is simply planted around the road, and even the tour groups just pull over on the side like we did to look around and take pictures. I suppose there’s nothing stopping someone from walking up into the woods and hiking around, but there are no trails or interpretive signs. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful forest, and I enjoyed the drive through it in both directions.

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Later, I learned that part of the reason this forest is so silent and peaceful compared with the buzzing, squawking jungle around it is that the local birds and insects have not adopted the non-native mahogany trees as a habitat. The trees were planted as a way to reforest the island after some slash and burn farming tactics, and now there is a bit of a controversy from Filipino biodiversity specialists about the best way to keep doing that. As stunning as the forest is, it does explain why it felt so alien in comparison with the rest of the landscape, and highlights the reasons why environmentalism is about more than just planting trees.

Chocolate Hills

20171002_103406.jpgAfter 2 and a half hours of driving, we finally made it to the Chocolate Hills Lookout (sometimes called the Chocolate Hills Complex). There was a line of cars and vans stopping at something on the way, but they all looked like tourist groups and there were no clear signs, so we just drove around them and on up to the parking lot at the top. Motorbikes always have a separate parking area from cars here, so we pulled in and were asked for our tickets… which we didn’t have. I’m not sure if that was what we should have done in that long line of cars or not, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone, we just gave an attendant the money for the parking and tickets and she returned with our passes and receipt. We left the bikes there, and although we had to leave them unlocked, the lot was watched so we weren’t too worried.

The Chocolate Hills are a unique geographical formation found nowhere else on earth. There are well over 1,000 of these mounds in this one area of Bohol and none elsewhere in the world. The hills are soft, conical mounds covered in grass that dies and turns brown in the dry season making them look like chocolate kisses and giving them their flavorful name. No one knows how the mounds were formed, but everyone agrees it is a natural rather than manmade phenomenon.

Once Upon a Time

The mythology of the Chocolate Hills is a bit richer than the geology. There are three main myths to explain the hills among the people of Bohol. I have paraphrased them here for you.

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1) Long long ago when the land was always either baking dry, or slippery with mud and only the harvest time had green growth, there was a fight between two giants. No one seems to remember what the fight was about, only that it started to rain, and they soon began to hurl huge balls of mud at one another. The fight went on for days until both giants were exhausted. Some say they were so worn out from fighting, they simply lay down and died, but others more optimistically say that once they were worn out, the giants also forgot what they had been fighting about and resolved to be friends, leaving the field of battle strewn with their giant mud balls which became the hills.

2) Also long long ago, a giant named Arogo fell in love with a mortal woman named Aloya. In some versions, they marry and live together, but in all versions Aloya falls desperately ill and dies, leaving Arogo in terrible grief. For his love and loss of Aloya, he cried giant’s tears and where they fell, they became the hills.

3) This legend is a great deal more scatalogical, but it seems to be a favorite among children, as such stories often are. One day, a long time ago, a giant water buffalo wandered Bohol eating all the crops. The people became frustrated and so they laid a trap, piling all the spoiled food where the water buffalo could not help but see it. However, once he consumed the spoiled food, he had terrible stomach pains and… well… you can imagine what happened next? When the buffalo’s business dried out, there were the hills.

Getting the High Ground

20171002_105544.jpgWhen going to view the Chocolate Hills, there are two main scenic points, the one I went to, and another on the opposite side called Sagbayan Peak. The descriptions I’d read online make Sagbayan seem like a great place to go with kids, with a water park and giant animal sculptures and other places to play, but after a 2.5 hour drive to the Complex in Carmen, I opted not to drive to Sagbayan as well. There are other places to get a view, and there are some ATV rental places you can do an off road drive in the area, but it seems like the best way to be sure of getting a nice look is to go to one of these two peaks for a high ground advantage.

The Carmen location where I went had ample motorbike parking, and a little building with a restaurant, snack shop, restrooms and some souvenir stands, and a little off to one side, a giant staircase leading up to the highest peak for the best view. First, I took a circuit of the main building, looking out at the vistas below and peering casually at the souvenir stalls. I have given up souvenirs with my nomadic lifestyle and rely almost exclusively on photos and this blog to help me remember my travels with fondness, but I still like to see what’s on offer. Every now and then I find something I will actually use or wear.

20171002_104853.jpgOnce we completed the survey of the base level, we headed over to the stairs. I’m not a champion stair climber, but there were lots of places to stop, and a few side paths for extra sights. It’s not too much of a climb for all that it’s the tallest of the hills. Part way up is the turn off to see the “Our Lady of Lourdes” Grotto. The Philippines are mostly Catholic, a holdover from the Spanish colonization. There are churches and shrines everywhere, but I don’t mind too much as Catholic art tends to be beautiful, and no one was trying to convert me.

20171002_105639.jpgI took about a million pictures of beautiful flowers and the shifting view on our way to the top. And when I finally reached the peak,  took obligatory selfies from the viewing platform. I also went to find the not-actually-famous-at-all well with a a bell to ring the bell and make a wish. There was also a cute little backdrop on one side for people who like to pose with man-made scenery. I liked it despite or perhaps because of it’s total kitsch, but I’m glad it was off to one side and not covering the whole viewing platform.

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Why Do They Call It the ‘Rainy Season’

Standing atop this highest peak and taking in the view and the breeze, I noticed some dark clouds moving toward us. The weather in Bohol is still a mystery to me. October was supposed to be the “rainy season” and yet I’d only seen lightning from a long distance (and that close to the equator you can see a long way), our skies had been sunny.

20171002_111127-PANO.jpg Even as the week continued, we experienced very little rain. I am told that the rainy season is short but  has strong showers every day, and the hotel hostess did say that the weather was a little unusually dry for my visit, so maybe I just got lucky? Anyway, not wanting to be caught on the very top of the highest peak around if a thunderstorm hit,  we began to descend the stairs.

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On the way down, there was a family looking at something off to the side of the path and I stopped to see what it was. It turned out to be a little salamander! The diversity of wildlife, plant animal, insect, fungi, in Bohol is just stunning, but so much of it is tiny. It’s just proof that seeing the best things means being open to looking.

During the ensuing downpour, we got some lunch in the restaurant. I’ve included this meal experience in the food post, so I’m not going to describe it here, but I will say I was pleasantly surprised.

Just Another Adventure Park

With full bellies and sunny skies, we hopped back on our bikes to descend to our next stop. The parking lot attendants asked us where we were headed and advised us to be extra careful because the roads would be slippery. It seemed everywhere we went, the local people were quick to watch out for our safety and well-being.

12274756_10154324072564838_1412251690201222453_n.jpgOne of the many things I found online about Bohol was the prevalence of adventure parks. We have these in Korea too, and for some reason I still haven’t ziplined. The Chocolate Hills Adventure Park advertised a kind of zip bike, where you pedal a special bike (with a safety harness) along a zip line between two chocolate peaks. I have nothing against ziplining, it just doesn’t seem like a great way to actually see anything, so I keep putting it off in favor of taking in sights until I manage to find one in a place I’ve thoroughly explored. But this bike thing seemed unique and slow enough to get a great view with plenty of time to look around and admire the scenery instead of zipping through it.

I found the park at the end of my first, but not last, bumpy dirt road. I decided that driving on that road was the first test for any ambitious adrenaline junkie, after all, if you couldn’t navigate a dirt and rock road with uneven levels, shifting gravel, and post rain mud puddles, how could you possibly do the real adventure at the park? You can’t buy tickets to the individual rides at the front but must pay a 60p entrance fee, although they did offer to hold our helmets at the ticket office while we were inside.

20171002_145050.jpgI read online that the park had a weight limit, but we decided try anyway and see how much they actually meant it and how much was just a liability disclaimer. It turned out to be sort of both. We were each a few kilos over the weight limit, but instead of telling us straight up “no”, the staff advised us to head on up to the zip bike area and try on the harness with the safety guide to see if it would fit anyway. In retrospect, I’m not sure if this was their way of shifting the responsibility or not. I think if we’d been WAY over the limit they would have turned us away, but since we were close?

20171002_145135.jpgWe headed further in, following signs to the zip bike and were led to a steep stone stairway with the sign “fitness test starts here” at the bottom. I theorized that anyone who couldn’t climb the stairs to the starting point wasn’t fit enough for the activity, and we began the ascent. Whatever your opinions of stairs are, know that the jungle makes it harder. Humidity. Nonetheless, we persevered and made it to the top and were rewarded with a breathtaking view and a less than stellar ride attendant. I do try to give people the benefit of the doube, and maybe she was annoyed with her coworker on the radio or something else we couldn’t even see and not with us at all, but it was clear she was annoyed with something.

20171002_134923.jpgWe waited on the viewing platform, and I have to say that even though we’d just come from the tallest peak in the hills, the Adventure Park’s view was stunning. I don’t think I would have gone there only for the view, but it was certainly a nice perk. We also watched a few more tourists take the bikes out and back on the lines from the tower above us to the hill next door. The attendant at first told us that we had to wait due to lightning (the storm that had just passed us?), but then we saw people riding anyway? I’m not sure what was the deal there. I also accidentally got doused in ants trying to take a picture of the hanging trellis flowers. The ants really liked the flowers too, and when I bumped into one, they transferred from the petals to me. Thankfully, they were just small black ones, and I was able to brush them off with no bites, but it reminded me to keep an eye out for what I touch or lean on in the jungle.

Finally enough riders returned that the safety guide was able to have us try on the harnesses for size. I thought it fit. It went over my thighs and around my waist, and while there wasn’t much slack, I was starting to feel optimistic when the safety guy shook his head sadly. Although his English was not as good as the attendant’s, his attitude toward us was much kinder, and he seemed genuinely sad to have to break the news. Although the park employees were not speaking to each other in English, I finally figured out the problem was not merely the harness fitting, but where the straps landed on our bodies, especially our legs. It was disappointing, but understanding the reason wasn’t just fatphobia helped me to accept the results.

On the way back down the stairs, I enjoyed seeking out tiny treasures along the trail. Little bitty flowers, fluttering butterflies, a wee fuzzy caterpillar, an odd sideways snail and a mini mushroom. I love taking photos of tiny things sooo much.

Park for the Less Adventurous

There are a lot of opportunities to visit butterfly enclosures on Bohol as well. Initially, I planned to see the conservatory nearby, but the adventure park had their own and we were already there. It’s impossible not to compare, but I may have been spoiled by the one in Kuala Lumpur.

20171002_143134.jpgIf you’re going to the Adventure Park anyway, go ahead and visit their butterflies, but don’t go out of your way for this display. We were accompanied by a guide who had been trained to take lots of pictures for us (with our phones, they weren’t trying to sell them back to us or anything, but Asian tourists especially love appearing in their own travel photos in a way I never will) and move people through. She showed us a display on the life-cycle of a butterfly, and we got to hold a caterpillar. Then we walked through a path in a netted off part of the forest. We only saw a couple butterflies and at one point our guide threw a rock in an attempt to get on up on the top net to fly. We quickly stopped her from continuing that and said we were fine with the way things were. She said the butterflies were inactive because of the rain, but I felt like I’d seen half a dozen just climbing down the stairs from the zip bike.

There was a dead butterfly on the side of the trail which she picked up and repositioned so we could take photos. It was a little macabre, but I could tell she had been instructed to make sure that the visitors had as many photo opportunities as possible. On the way out, we posed behind butterfly wings in transparent cases to create a “trick photo” of ourselves as butterflies. It was, like many other things here, quite kitschy, but harmless fun. I’d definitely prefer a trick photo to mistreatment of living butterflies.

The experience was strange. It was small and a little dingy, and I think designed by someone who had heard tourists loved butterflies but didn’t really know how to do a butterfly garden. We never did go to the main conservatory down the road, but from everything I read on Trip Advisor, it’s almost exactly the same from the holding of the caterpillar to the trick photo at the end. I’m not saying don’t go. It’s super cheap and you might see more butterflies than we did. However, I saw a million beautiful butterflies in the wild, just wandering around Bohol and watching the flowers.

20171002_144552.jpgAfter the butterfly enclosure, we were guided over to the suspension bridge which is included in the park entrance fee already. This kind of bridge through the canopy is another very common tourist must do in Bohol, available at multiple locations. Even though I may not deliberately go looking for the silliest touristy things to do, I’m hardly going to turn it down if it’s right there in front of me. We had fun, and got a nice view of the park from the air before descending the stairs on the far side and heading back to the bikes.

Tarsier Conservation Area

20171002_164035.jpgFollowing a delightful and refreshing stop for some locally sourced buffalo milk ice cream, we headed back down the main road where were would be able to find the Tarsier Conservation Area (not to be confused with the “Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary”). Bohol is also famous as the home of the world’s smallest primate, the tarsier. There are two tarsier spots near the Chocolate Hills, and it was worth it to me to visit both, since I was already planning other road trips near each one. I’ll say now, if you can only do one, do the Sanctuary, but seeing both was nice.

The Conservation Area has a bad rap online for being too zoo-like, and I’ve seen some of the zoos in Asia, so I was wary of going at first. I had visions of tarsiers in tiny cages where people could take close up photos, or worse of them being passed from patron to patron as the reptiles so often are. I was pleasantly surprised to find no such thing going on. Make no mistake, the tarsiers here are captive, not wild, and they are part of a breeding program to restore the native population. But their everyday environment is nowhere near what I feared.

Visitors were encouraged to follow a concrete path through the enclosed forest. I saw a lot of paths that were blocked off with temporary barriers or signs which makes me think that sometimes the walking path changes when the critters need to move. There were park staff positioned along the path to help us spot the tiny tarsiers in the trees. Although photos are allowed, there is a no flash and no selfie stick rule, as well as signs all around reminding patrons to keep quiet for the little sleepy monkeys. Tarsiers are nocturnal, and so visiting hours are also sleeping hours. Each one was clinging to his or her tree under a clearly man-made roof of leaves and branches.

20171002_162736.jpgI can’t be sure if they are placed at these viewing stations or if the park simply made attractive bowers in good places and hoped. I did see one little guy hanging out in a not great viewing spot with no guide to point him out, so at least a few must be slightly rogue. We were also told they are territorial, and tend to stay in or near one tree as adults.

While it is clear that this park is an animal enclosure, a zoo for one species, I felt that it was still a pretty decent life for the critters who, while yes, had to be ogled by tourists, were at least kept a reasonable distance from the path and protected from invasive hands and cameras.

20171002_163905Whether we like it or not, tourism is the main reason species like these will survive. In fact, the growing interest in ecotourism is a big part of what’s paying for conservation in developing countries. It can be hard to draw the line between exploitation and preservation, but I think the Conservatory is leaning on the right side. Of course, the park dumps you back into a souvenir shop between the exit and the parking lot which was full of tarsier themed everything, and one shelf of wooden phallus ashtrays for no discernible reason at all.

Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary

20171006_093344.jpgSeveral days later on my way to a lunch cruise on the Loboc river, I started out extra early to make time for the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary to see how it compared to the Conservation Area. I tried to get there as close to opening as possible to beat the crowds of tourists, and I think I very well may have been the first customer of the day since cashiers had to be found, then change had to be found. It’s not an expensive tour, but like every little adventure in Bohol, it does cost a small amount to go in. I got a personal guide who walked me through a kind of netting air lock into the forest beyond.

20171006_093938While the Conservation center had been paved paths with guides stationed at each Tarsier, the Sanctuary was much more a natural jungle with mud paths through the trees. I doubt I would have gotten lost in the small area behind the building, but I certainly wouldn’t have seen as many tarsiers without my guide. The Sanctuary is closed in, but the fence and netting are very unobtrusive, designed more to keep predators out than to restrict the tarsiers. I also felt like the tarsier perches here were probably man made to encourage the critters to good viewing sites, and to make sure they were visible from the paths while being sheltered from the sun. However, where the Conservatory perches were obviously man-made, the Sanctuary perches looked far more natural, drawing less attention to themselves and who knows, maybe being more comfortable.

20171006_094314My guide quietly and confidently led me through the tangle of muddy paths, stopping every few minutes to point out a tiny sleeping primate. I was surprised at how close they were to the path after my experience at the Conservation center. While I’d been hard pressed to get any decent photos at the Conservation center, I had merely to hold up my phone to be close enough for great detail here at the sanctuary. I was worried about disturbing the little critters, so I tried to keep a reasonable distance, although more than once they were close enough for me to have reached out and touched, I know that would have been dangerous and damaging for them, so I resisted the urge. My guide was in no rush, and was happy to stand by while I got a good look at each one, and until I was satisfied with my photos. I can’t say I always had a good photo before I decided to move on, since I was keenly aware that simply by watching me back, I was keeping them awake and didn’t want to become a source of greater stress. I probably stayed at each spot between 2-5 minutes before moving on.

20171006_094405The Sanctuary jungle was also the hottest thing I did on this vacation. The trees were so close together and the netting caught the breezes, so even at 9:30 am it was sweltering hot and I was drenched in sweat the whole time. It was entirely worth it.

Tarsier Mythology and Preservation

20171006_094201.jpgIt was so peacefully quiet and there were no other visitors in the park so I felt very special getting to have this beautiful jungle and adorable creatures all to myself. I talked to them in soft reassuring tones like I was trying to sooth a scared kitten, and I have no idea if that was effective at all or just my own human oddness, but it was so obvious that they were watching me back, I couldn’t help but wonder how many myths of goblins or fairies these peculiarly shaped animals inspired. Their eyes are so large in comparison with their heads and yet the gaze is penetrating. Their hands are smaller than a newborn, but their fingers long and deft with large pads at the tips like a lizard or a frog.

In the west, these creatures have inspired fictional characters like Yoda, Gizmo (the Mowgwai), and the very popular Furbies. But in the Philippines, a deep superstition that pre-dates the Spanish colonization (and has never been fully eradicated by Catholic conversion) holds that forest spirits who dwell in the Balete Tree keep the Tarsier as beloved pets. Although there are very few of these trees left, the superstition has not wholly passed out of practice, and some of the early conservationists mentioned this myth in concerns over the mass capture and killing of the Tarsier that until recently had become normal in Bohol.

Thankfully, they are now a protected species, no longer for sale in every market, and where they are on display to the public, their environment is protected from two and four legged predators while raising money for increased preservation efforts.

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Feel free to check out the full albums of the Chocolate Hills and the adorable tarsiers over on my Facebook page 🙂


It’s December in “real time” here in Korea and I’m mostly occupying my time with end of year chores and dentistry. Looking over my photos, it’s clear I didn’t do nearly as much exploring inside Korea as my first year, and so I’m looking into some winter festivals that I missed out on before. And although January is our holiday time, I may be postponing my next out of country trip depending on what my next contract holds. While things are up in the air, I’m going to be a bit of a money saving homebody, but I have no doubt that some kind of adventure will come my way soon. Until then, I’ll keep publishing the Bohol stories and the China throwbacks. Thanks for reading! ❤

Malay Peninsula 2: Singapore Night Safari

March Madness does not just apply to basketball anymore. I missed it last year in part because I had the horrible avian death flu and in part because I was totally new to Korea and insulated from the madness. However, I’m getting it double this year, since I’m no longer the (complete) outsider. March is the start of the new school year, when every single bit of bureaucracy must be done while you’re trying to get to know new students and new co-workers! I used to have an hour or two of “me time” in the afternoons after all the work was done, but recently, it’s been a non-stop Alice in Wonderland style caucus race. So forgive me – the blog has fallen behind. Here’s the second installment of January’s adventure that made me rethink zoos forever.


Bad Tourist, Bad!

The day at the Gardens by the Bay kept me walking for the better part of 7 hours, more than half of that in the sunny, humid outdoors. I suppose I could have hustled over to see more of the heritage gardens, but since my night was going to be full of 5 more hours of walking around outside, I decided to hold still for a while and sip some more of the unique coffee.

While I was sitting in a nearly empty (indoor and AC’d) food court, I watched an abomination of tourism. In stark contrast to the fun, kind folks I’d been meeting all day, this man walked up to the coffee shop and demanded to know if they had a flat white or skinny latte. They did not, since it was a traditional Malaysian style coffee shop. The man then went on to berate the poor employees along the lines of how can they be a “coffee shop” if they don’t even serve a flat white or skinny latte. He was rude, angry, and belligerent to the staff, and seemed to have zero interest in finding out what the cafe did have (awkward since they totally serve coffee with milk, they just don’t call it “flat white”). I can understand the desire for something familiar when travelling. I personally think it’s important to try new things, but I know that if you’ve had new things out your ears for days, there is value in the familiar. But there is just no reason ever to get mad at a shop in another country for not being like a shop in yours. And yes, I did talk to the staff afterward and told them I thought that guy was being a jerk and that visitors should be more willing to try the local way. Don’t be that guy.

Taxi Driver History Lessons

I left the SuperTree grove around 6:15 and took a taxi on the long trek across the city. Although I hear the public transit system is spectacular, the distance I had to travel would have still taken about 90 min, so I opted for taxi instead. I ended up having a great chat with the taxi driver who was a Singapore native and rather older gentleman, so he was able to talk with me about some of the changes that had occurred in the city over the last couple decades. The biggest one seemed to be the land reclamation. Every bit of land I’d been on during the day was actually reclaimed from the ocean and the road that now lay inland called “beach road” was so named because it literally used to be a beach!

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I also discovered that Singapore has no minimum wage, although while he was complaining about the low wages that fast food level employees made, he did let slip a number that was rather higher than the US minimum wage. It makes me wonder about the economics of a situation that, without government enforcement, and with access to cheap immigrant labor, the average low end employee is still making more than the US burger flipper. I am willing to bet it’s related to the small size of the nation, and the fact that it is nearly all city.

And lastly, I discovered that there is a severely classist system for immigrant workers, with no wage regulation and heavy taxes. Inexperienced foreign workers from say… Bangladesh or the Philippines can end up taking home as little as 18-20$ a day. It’s not as bad as the situation in Dubai as far as exploiting foreign labor goes, but I have to say I was a little disappointed that Singapore, a model for environmentalism and safety, did not have sufficient laws in place to protect workers.

We drove through more animal conservation lands, and the driver pointed out to me a land-bridge that had been built to help animals move safely from one side of the highway to the other, as well as the area abutting the zoo where the wild sanctuary animals and captive zoo animals would occasionally encounter one another through the fence.

Zoo Shows

20170117_190355As I got out of the taxi, I walked past a peacock that had either escaped, or was deliberately placed at the entrance for effect. The bird seemed unperturbed by the traffic. Even though I was a little early, the courtyard was packed full of tour groups and I had trouble pushing my way through to an info counter just to find out where to go. I stood in a long line as we all had our tickets scanned and everyone streamed into the Night Safari like the opening bell at Disney.

The Singapore zoo has, as far as I can tell, four separate parks. The main zoo, a rivers of the world event, a bird event, and the Night Safari. At first, I thought it was simply a night time version of the main zoo, but later I realized that it is a separate park that simply doesn’t open until 7pm. It is entirely filled with nocturnal creatures and kept at a low light level so the animals are not much disturbed. It’s designed to be as open and natural as possible, allowing the visitors and animals to get as close as is safe, and is filled with hundreds of creatures that are almost always asleep during regular zoo hours.

20170117_194026I had missed the first fire show at the opening, but since it happened every hour until 9pm, I wasn’t too worried. I headed instead for the animal show at the advice of one of the zoo staff. This was just as well because the lines for the tram were insane. Being a lone traveler is sometimes advantageous, like when trying to find a seat in a crowded theater. I wedged myself in between two families in a fairly good spot and sat down to watch what I fervently hoped would not be an exploitative performing animal show. I was not disappointed. The “show” was largely animals being brought forward while the main announcer talked about the species being shown. There was humor and a few animal tricks, but these involved a large cat leaping, a raccoon going through a “garbage can”, and an otter doing some recycling (which may be one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen). The last one led into a great discussion of what happens when urbanization encroaches on 20170117_195114animals habitat and on what we as humans can do to help better preserve the environment. I know some people might think it’s a little preachy, but I was personally gratified to see the zoo using it’s platform of animal entertainment to help educate visitors on conservation and preservation.

After the animal show, I headed back out to the main plaza to t20170117_2005001.jpgake in the fire show. Although the zoo website makes it seem as though this is some kind of traditional tribal fire dance, in reality it is a modern dance with a totally made up tribal sounding name. It was still fun and pretty, just not particularly traditional or historically accurate.

Walking with the Animals

Next, I decided to do a walking path or two. There are several walking path sections in the safari and each one highlights a different environment of animal. I started out on the “Fishing Cat Trail”, the primary attraction of which was a fishing cat that uses it’s claws to hook fish out of the river for dinner. The main area of the plaza is loud and bright with shops and restaurants and the waiting line for the tram, but once you get out of the main area and onto the walking paths, the zoo becomes dark, quiet and peaceful. Quite often, I was the only person on the path, or was only sharing it with a couple other people. From time to time, larger noisier groups would pass through and glance at the brush, then seeing no animals would complain loudly and move on. I just waited for them to go.

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Not the fishing cat. Just a cool leopard with better than average lighting.

The animals aren’t “on display”. The environments are designed to be natural while still giving the humans a good view. Plus, it’s dark, cause well, night safari. While I was shocked at the number of people who simply couldn’t get the idea, it didn’t take long to realize that all it took to have a good experience was a little patience. The animals would often retreat from large noisy crowds and only return to their normal nighttime activity after things had calmed down. I stood next to the fishing cat stream for several minutes trying to spot the cat, and finally my patience was rewarded as a medium sized feline came out from behind some trees and began to stalk fish in the small stream next to the path. I don’t know how long I stayed and watched. It was amazing. There was hardly any distance between myself and the fishing cat and yet his environment was so natural, he was comfortably hunting his dinner.

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Still not the fishing cat. Pelicans enjoying a night swim.

The vast majority of the displays were like that, close and open and natural making you feel like you’d just wandered into their home rather than like you were viewing a caged animal. The most dangerous animals were separated by a larger gap, and the tiniest animals were in display boxes (although we still couldn’t always find them). I didn’t get to see every animal. Most were completely hidden when I walked up and only came out after a few minutes. A few were on grand display, like the pelicans and otters. At one point, while crossing a bridge over a small stream, I looked down and spotted an enormous crocodile. He could easily have blocked the stream if he’d lain sideways across it. It was a bit terrifying to be so close with nothing between us, even though the bridge was well above his reach and the sides of the stream were too steep for him to climb. Many animals were hidden, but could be found with some searching like a hidden picture puzzle. And a few I never saw at all.

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I’m not sure I believe that flamingos are nocturnal, but they are pretty at night.

After walking about half the trails, I decided to catch the tram ride. The tram goes on a different route from the walking trails and afforded me a chance to sit down and relax for a little while. I think my favorite part of the tram ride was the rhinos, but it was an overall pleasant experience with light narration and continued reminders about environmental conservation and poaching. At one point the narratress asked us to make a pledge never to buy rhino horn products again, which isn’t usually an issue for Americans, but there are a lot of Chinese and other Asian tourists who come to Singapore who might need the reminder. Side bonus, since I’d waited a couple hours, the tram crowd thinned out and I got a bench to myself, which meant I could move to the left or right and get the best view of the animals.

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We could hear the lions everywhere, but only got to view them from the tram.

 

After the tram circuit, I finished up the walking trails, passing through a free flying bat house(!) and a sort of wallaby ranch. The bat house was easily my favorite thing in the zoo. I’ve only ever seen zoo bats behind glass and here these were flying around my head! The big fruit bats hung lazily from branches that had been strategically placed close to the path and hung with fruit to entice them, while the smaller bats zipped in an out of the trees. One flew so close past my ear, I felt the breeze from his wing as I heard the leathery flapping and sonic skittering. In the flying squirrel walk through, I didn’t get to see any fly, but I did play a fun game of hide and seek with a little tree dweller who was clearly curious about me too. And in the wallaby enclosure, the little hoppers were free to roam around the ground, including onto the path if they felt like it. None did, but even when I knelt down to their level to get a closer look, no one ran away either.

The last place I got to explore was a cave environment with all the little dark cave dwellers on display in a sort of Pirates of the Caribbean-esque themed man-made cave environment. Plenty of spiders and other creepy crawlies, including some black light glowing scorpions.

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I have not mentioned even a 10th of the animals I got to see and hear. The lions were roaring throughout the night and could be heard from nearly anywhere in the park. The hardest part about the Night Safari is the low lighting. I have good night vision, but a lot of guests were struggling to see the animals, and I was a little bit sad that I had no way to take pictures of these experiences. The Night Safari is not just another zoo, it’s the closest encounter you’re likely to have with any of these animals that isn’t directly exploitative the way that zoos in China and Thailand are. The Night Safari won’t force animals to do tricks or pose with guests. And it’s the only night zoo that specializes in showing off nocturnal animals at their natural time of day. It’s clean, well organized, clearly focused on the animal welfare both within and without the zoo grounds and has dozens of totally unique animal encounters. If you find yourself in Singapore with an evening open, I highly recommend spending the full 5 hours there.

Dinner in Chinatown

It was minutes before closing time when i made my way back to the main plaza. I had no hope of catching the bus back to Chinatown and ended up summoning an Uber, which I then shared with another visiting couple who had been trying to get their hotel concierge to get an Uber to pick them up with very limited success. We had a pleasant conversation on the drive and I found myself back in Chinatown after midnight and famished. The night safari had restaurants, but I didn’t have time to sit down and eat and still see everything. My hostel had cup noodles for sale, but I needed something more substantial after my long day of sightseeing.

I took off toward some bright lights and soon found a tiny Chinese restaurant open late. After a few minutes of hopelessly perusing a picture menu, I asked about my all time favorite Chinese dish 西红柿炒鸡蛋 (fried egg and tomato) and got a surprised yes. This may be because I asked in Chinese, but was more likely because my favorite Chinese food is a common ‘peasant’ dish that is not usually on the menu in western restaurants (though it had been on the menu here). Hanging out in Singapore’s Chinatown felt like being in a very clean version of China without the ubiquitous Chinese litter and smog. Most Chinatowns are a sort of fusion of the immigrant and local culture, but Singapore itself is a blend of Malay and Chinese cultures, so I guess it stands to reason that the extra Chinese part would be very authentic.


Stay tuned for installment 3 where I go back to Chinatown in the daytime to check out the famous temples! Sadly, the Night Safari is not conducive to photography so there’s no album accompanying this post, but feel free to check out the Facebook, Twitter or Instagram for more daily tidbits of life between posts. Thanks for reading! 🙂