Forget Thailand: The Philippines is South East Asia's best-kept secret
From tropical islands to bustling mega-cities, Sophie Gorman says The Philippines is South East Asia's best-kept secret.
'Would you like one woodworm or two?"
I'm asked the question in a tiny café beside a steaming mangrove swamp on the beautiful Filipino island of Palawan. The woodworms (or tamilok) in question reside in the mangrove trees and die the instant they are taken out of the wood.
They're about four inches long, and they're on the menu. Raw. The tradition is to dip them in a shallow bowl of vinegar, open wide… and chew. Unlike oysters, these slithery specimens require some nibbling before they go down. They don't actually taste of much, but are traditionally eaten to make you more youthful. I should have ordered two.
Food is certainly one way into Filipino culture. It's incredibly varied, regularly unexpected and often wonderful. You can try barbecued pope's noses on a skewer (yes, those are chickens' rear ends), cheese ice cream (surprisingly mild), giant prawns or bright purple ube (a dessert made from yams).
But food is just the start of it. The Philippines is so much more than I expected. Beyond the crazy chaos of the capital, Manila, lie over 7,000 islands, many of which are uninhabited and many of which are unspoilt tropical paradises. After my stay, I have a hankering to visit every one to which travel is safe (see DFA travel advice, below).
My journey begins in bustling Manila, where the destruction of war means that very few original structures remain. In the 1980s, the government embarked on a plan to recreate much of the Philippines and construction continues everywhere; cranes dominating the skyline are reminiscent of Dublin 10 years ago. But there is still much history to be explored, and there are tributes everywhere to nationalist hero Jose Rizal - a novelist, poet, ophthalmologist, linguist and revolutionary, whose last love (of many) was Josephine Bracken, an Irish woman from Hong Kong.
I learn that life is very adaptive here. Filipinos describe themselves as being Malay in terms of family, Spanish for love, Chinese for business and American for ambition. Eighty per cent of the population is Roman Catholic - when the Pope visited in January of this year, it was as if a rock star had come to town.
I escape the city crowds by taking a short flight to the island of Palawan, proclaimed by Condé Nast to be the Top Island in the World 2014 - and still looking quite glorious a year later, I can tell you. Palawan is the tropical paradise that inspired novelist Alex Garland to write The Beach, later made into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio. It's also host to one of the seven New Wonders of Nature, the Puerto Princesa Underground River.
Here, I pass macaque monkeys and huge prowling monitor lizards, before boarding a canoe at the entrance to a vast cave home to more than 80,000 bats. The ceiling is full of these beady-eyed winged delights, fluttering whenever the torch beam catches them. Huge caverns, riddled with giant stalactites and stalagmites, complete the sense of an impressive secret world.
Later, I hike up a mountain to visit the Batak tribe, one of the last reasonably unspoilt group of indigenous people on the island. I say reasonably, because some of their young men overtake me on their motorbikes, dashing back up to catch the end of Sunday service. They also use the motorbikes to bring sap from the almaciga tree to markets - this is used for lacquer and varnish. They sell honey, too.
The Bataks currently consist of almost 50 families, with a population of about 220 people. They used to live much higher up this mountain, but about 30 years ago there was an outbreak of measles and 15 children died, so their chief brought them down to be closer to the road. In the village, I also spot a brand new Batak basketball court. I challenge some local boys to a game. They play their worst, but still win.
I travel on through beautiful verdant mountains, accompanied by dramatic cracks and bellows of thunder. The roads are a work in progress in much of the countryside, with stretches of cement interspersed by dirt track. They are also dotted with wild dogs - found everywhere in The Philippines. They command the roads and won't move for you, you have to drive around them. It's a hairy journey at times, but it brings me to a genuine tropical paradise, El Nido ('bird's nest'), a seaside town surrounded by coral gardens offering world-class snorkelling and diving.
El Nido's soundtrack is one of honking geckos and honking tricycle horns - as the most common taxi here is a tricycle with sidecar dressed up to look like it should be in the dodgems. The sea is teeming. Fish of every colour, iridescent blue coral fingers and giant jellyfish all float before my mask. A pod of dolphins even appears when I am far out in the middle of the sea and the rain finally deluges down. The dolphins perform as if they know my spirits momentarily need uplifting. I take a kayak out when the sun returns and am accompanied by schools of flying fish.
Everything happens on the seafront here. The bars and restaurants all extend out into the sands, the perfect place to experience the ruby red setting sun. It's very hard to leave El Nido, just as it is the wonderful secret tourist haven that is The Philippines.
What to pack
A hat and many light layers should be the first items in your bag - it gets very hot and it gets very humid in The Philippines. You should also bring waterproof sandals if trekking to meet the Batak tribe, as that requires crossing the same river 10 times!
Sophie travelled with Intrepid Travel's new Philippines Island Getaway (intrepidtravel.com). Prices start from €1,060pp including accommodation, transport, selected meals, activities and a local guide. Fly from Dublin to Manila via Dubai with Emirates from €594pp (emirates.com/ie).
Where to stay
In Manila, the Oasis Paco Park Hotel (oasispark.com) is good value with a lovely swimming pool. In El Nido, splash out for a night at the El Nido Cove Resort (elnidocoveresort.com), with its uninterrupted private beach.
The Department of Foreign Affairs advises Irish citizens to "extreme extreme caution" if/when planning trips to The Philippines.
"We advise against all travel to South West Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago and against all but essential travel to the remainder of Mindanao," it says. "There is a high threat from terrorism, including kidnapping."
Full travel advice here.