I had business in Manila on a Friday and the following Monday, so I decided to remain in the Philippines and visit Puerto Princesa on the island of Palawan for the weekend. The longest-known subterranean river in the world at 8.2 Km length is a two-hour car-ride from Puerto Princesa, where I landed on Saturday morning.
I walked to the City Coliseum from where I needed to get a permit to visit the river. At 11.48 AM the place was already closed for lunch. I found myself something to eat and returned at close to 1 PM when it opened again. The woman at the counter told me that they had a noon cutoff for issuing permits for the same day. Well really, you couldn’t hang around until noon to issue me the permit when I arrived at 11.48?
I took a shared taxi (it looked like a toned-down jeepney) to San Jose Station. I crawled into this van through the back and squeezed myself between a woman with two toddlers and another with an infant in her arms. The vehicle’s seats and roof were too narrow for a person of my size, but the locals fit just fine. I needed to get to Sabang, the village that was the base for visiting the river. It was now almost 1.30. The next minibus departure to Sabang with available seats was at 3.30 PM, wait, no, 5.30 PM. I asked for a private car. I got one that had a horrific crack on the windscreen.
When I enquired about it, the driver made a gesture suggesting that someone had thrown a rock at it. Then he explained that it was actually because someone crashed his head into the windscreen instead. Very relieving. As we approached Sabang, we stopped to take some photos of the karsts. The steep limestone hills are in abundance in this part of the world and I would no longer do a trip just to see them but they are still a pleasure.
I found myself a cabin at the first accommodation that I came across. The village was not very big and I could have covered much ground, but it was filled with dogs. At the town centre I found a game of basketball going. A bunch of teenagers, most of them in uniform, were at it. They were pretty good and a decent crowd was watching. There was even a commentator. At night I realised that our power came from a generator. It droned on through the night and I was clearly audible from my room. We had electricity only during 12 night hours. I plugged in my earphones.
On Sunday morning, I arrived at the information desk shortly after 8 AM to get my ride to the underground river. The place was a mess with no queue system. I paid up and got myself a bunch of papers. Then I went to the “dispatching station” where again there was no queue. Someone inside called me to get my documents and put me along with two French travellers. We tried to get the entire boat to ourselves for a higher price and paid the money, but they then paid it back to add three Filipinas to the boat. All the papers were given to one of the Filipinas. We had considerable confusion as to which boat we were taking or whom to follow because no one was in charge. Eventually the six of us got into a boat and we started moving along the coast. This boat was a covered catamaran with bamboo poles on either side to prevent it from tipping over. It could handle a bit of rough weather on the sea. I took the forward left seat. I had positioned myself well: right in the splash zone. I faced the brunt of the splashing waves on the trip to the entry to the river.
The boat dropped us off at a beach. We now needed to walk a bit more inland where we would take smaller paddle boats that could navigate within the river. The was further confusion as we tried to figure out whether we had a guide and what we needed to do next. The local “organisers” gave one piece of paper for the six of us and we collected our audio recordings with players. We then walked to the mouth of the river where there was further confusion. Someone then decided that our group had to be split in two. The French and myself were put in a boat with a bunch of others.
The cave entrance was right where we waited. Bright green waters flowed out of it into the sea. I observed that we were not given headlights, the most important thing in a dark cave. The boatman has a light. So did the Frenchman. The audio guide explained that lights were intentionally not placed within the cave so as to not modify the environment by introducing sources of heat. The boatman entertained us by making shadow animals with his hands and generally being a clown. One must run out of entertainment when doing boring boat rides in the dark all day. The obvious immediate sights and sounds inside the cave were of the bats; little ones about 10-15 cm long. They cheeped, hung around, filled the place with their reek and whooshed past my face in displays of dexterity. The audio guide warned us to stay silent in order not to disturb them and also to keep our mouths shut in general, especially if looking up, in order to not swallow any gifts of guano from above.
Close to the surface of the water and just below it, the rocks looked in many places as though they had been chipped away using ancient stone tools. From the start one gets to see the drippy stalactite and stalagmite formations. Filipinos are mostly Catholic. They had imaginatively decided that a bunch of formations resembled biblical scenes. At an opening called The Cathedral, the audio guide described and our boatman pointed out formations supposedly reminiscent of The Holy Family, The Last Supper, The Virgin Mary, a giant candle and even an angel. The guide ineffectually described the “easy” way to remember which of stalactites and stalagmites went up and which went down: the one with the T comes from the Top and the G from the Ground. I prefer Enid Blyton’s method: stalactites hang tight from the ceiling; stalagmites might reach up to them one day. There were other formations that the audio guide happily described as Pegasus, corn cobs, mushrooms and the like. There was even a shape which was named Sharon Stone, based on her naked body from Basic Instinct. The audio guide was happy to name all the people who needed to be credited for their contributions to the preservation of the river, the mayor of Puerto Princesa being chief among them. This man’s picture adorned billboards all over the city; clearly a kind soul who had done much for the city and presumably brought it prosperity. After travelling probably 1 Km (or less) into the river we turned around and headed back out.
After the cave I packed up my stuff and made my way to the mangroves to go on a relaxing boat ride. There were mangrove trees on either side. Occasionally they crowded thick enough to hide the sky. My boatman introduced himself as my tour guide. I quickly found this to be a stretch. He was not able to name the thin 15 cm-long fish with black stripes on silver body that I found in abundance. He was able to identify a python and a black heron, but then we came upon another snake with light green rings over dark green body. “Do you know what kind of snake that is?”, he asked. I asked him to tell me. A “poisonous” one, he pithily replied. He was also able to accurately identify the fruit of the mangrove as the “fruit of mangrove”.
There was a zipline nearby. My “guide” told me that it would take only about 20 minutes and he would take me there. This seemed nice, but when I returned from a one-minute toilet break, he had already found himself lunch and started eating. He pointed me in the direction to walk – I walked and found myself at the bottom of the zipline. Marvelling at this man’s intelligence, I headed back to the village to find myself something to eat and then leave.
I found place with a nice table outside, close to the sea and ordered lunch and a drink. My San Miguel Apple beer was not on my table after ten minutes, so I went to inquire. I got a bottle that had a circle of rust where the bottle cap was. I pointed this out and the guy picked up a piece of tissue paper to wipe it off. I asked for a new one. “You’ll have to pay for two beers”, the man said. “I am not drinking that beer.” The man decided against argument. I looked at the next bottle and OK-d it before he opened it. There was a little bit of rust on that one too, but I had to live with that.
The shared van to Puerto Princesa was crowded and I sat next to two muscular Filipinos of comparable build as me, but dressed like athletes or gym-goers. The ride ended in less than 2 hours when we stopped unexpectedly next to a bunch of tricycles. The guy was getting commission for dropping us off at a strange place next to tricycles that would take us to the airport. I bargained the price down from PHP 150 to 100 (I know – I saved a dollar).
At the airport, Air Asia’s self-check-in counters were not functioning; it had been the same on the way here. I had to wait more than an hour and half before they would open check-in for my flight. There was no restaurant in the check-in area. The locals started lining up forty minutes before the counter opened. Security required people to take off their shoes, so I had slippers on. There seemed to be no food at the gates either. There was no free water. I located a couple of hard-to-find restaurants on a floor above and sated my hunger.
The subterranean river had not been fantastic. I had seen karsts all over South East Asia and China. I compared the river at Sabang unfavourably to Tham Khong Lor in Laos where I’d gone in 2016. Tham Khong Lor was “only” 7 Km in length, but it was considerably less chaotic and uncrowded. Importantly we are able to navigate the length of that river within the cave and they provided powerful headlights to all who enter. Also they did not make the permit application (there was none) a horrendously painful process. The terrible customer service throughout the trip made it that much more odious. Filipinos are very friendly and full of smiles, but that barely mitigated the experience of travelling in their country. I could go the rest of my life without visiting it if necessary.