What’s that line about the best laid plans? … I enjoyed touring the Philippines but nothing went how I thought it might.
After my recent ride in northern Thailand I flew to Philippines to meet an old mate of mine. My plan was to rent bikes from Nice Bike in Angeles city which is more or less the only large capacity rental shop in the whole of the Philippines and then ride around Luzon before heading off to other parts of the Philippines.
Arriving Bangkok from Chiang Mai I got stuck with my onward flight delayed 10 hours. This caused a series of cascading delays and ended up loosing the first of a few days from the tour. Nice Bike have previously only had a few old worn out bikes but are now updating their fleet and soon will have some Kawasaki ER6 series bikes but at this time there was not a lot to choose from so I took their Honda CBR150 which most of the time would be enough power as the roads are not suitable for speed.
First day and a few hours out noticed rear tyre was going down fast and upon inspection it had a puncture in the shape of a large cut, too big for a plug type repair. Now this was a bigger problem than elsewhere in the world as in Philippines most people ride scooters with smaller wheels. There were no shops selling tubes for 17” bike wheels (or new tyres) and those self inflation repair cans so popular elsewhere are not sold here either. After stopping at a couple of the many vulcaniser shops who fix tubes I eventually found a larger shop with the gear to remove the wheel and tyre. The shop ground the inner of the tyre and glued a large vulcanising type patch on and then showed me the tyre had already 4 plugs in it all of which were perished so he replaced those and a few hours later I was back on the road. So a further half day lost and my confidence in the tyre making the full journey mixed but the shop seemed to do a really good job and the tyre itself was still reasonable tread depth.
Originally the route was Angeles to Baler on east coast but ended up riding north to Solano via San Jose. At the start of the mountain province and my spirits lifted once I was clear of the gridlock traffic and Jeepney diesel soot found in the Philippine cities. The scenery and riding improved dramatically as we rode along some of the valleys. Most of the mountain passes we would be riding were previously locations of fierce bloody battles in WW2 with the Japanese desperately trying to hold on to key passes in the later part of the war.
Introducing the CBR150 and the OMG petrol station.
My friend had some business to do at the town in route and we ended up spending a couple days there. I did some day tripping around the town of Solano and was only foreigner at the local markets where people were selling knock off designer jeans for a few dollars and I got a haircut for $1.25. Some things like that are very cheap in Philippines but food and hotels were a bit expensive and low quality, particularly the food which was quite poor at the hotel so I often ended up eating only at Jollibee a Philippine fast food chain which is like a cross between a KFC and McDonalds. We rode on to visit the famous rice terraces of Banaue however we did not leave the main road so perhaps missed the better views. I later was told by a local some of the photos on the net are labelled as the Banaue rice terraces but are actually taken near Sadanga where there is a terrific viewpoint so something to consider another time.
Heading north to Bontoc and the scenery changed again. Initially the small mountains had a sub tropical feel to them. As you ride on the altitude increases and foliage changes from jungle to pine trees and the roads become more spectacular.
About now my friend was having some problems with comfort on the XR200. The bike was fine and perhaps better suited to the mixed road conditions than my bike however he was carrying a huge amount of gear so he was sitting well forward where the seat narrows and not able to move around. I had pleaded with him to leave most of the stuff at the hotel until we returned, I left some things in their storage room and for a few days ride probably could have left more and put his gear in my bag but he insisted to bring everything he had for a multi month stay on the bike ride.
Very rare to find espresso coffee in Philippines as mostly just instant coffee or drip filter brewed coffee borrowed from the Americans so I had to stop at the above cafe in Bontoc seeing the sign. I had read about a mountain lodge located at Mt Data so we headed off to there and the roads then truly became amazing as you climb from a valley floor to dizzy heights which I was not able to capture but looking down to the valley below which is itself already on top of a mountain made me think of the very high roads in Europe. I do wish my good camera had not been broken on the Thai ride preceding this as the iPhone struggles with contrast.
That night at the lodge was very cold, log fire and many blankets – in the Philippines! Next day we rode above the clouds to the highest point in the Philippines road system and the scenery was jaw dropping at nearly every turn.
The road is good all the way to Baguio and down to the coast La Union also very scenic. It was cold up that high so I had my rain jacket under my mesh jacket and then added two t-shirts as well.
Down on the coast my friend was clearly uncomfortable riding and wanted to go back. I got frustrated a bit as just a few clothes in a backpack and the XR would have been fine. I know having ridden dirt bikes with slim seats that you have to be able to move your bum about a bit on them. Looking back I should have tried swapping bikes but this simple idea did not come to mind at the time for reasons unknown.
Anyway hindsight is a wonderful thing… I was going to ride to Vigan then come back to the Bessang Pass, home to one of the worst Pacific WW2 land battles but as it was I did not get far before the tyre got another puncture. This time the vulcaniser said I really need a tube and not to try tour further or I may end up be stranded on the isolated roads in the mountain pass. So reluctantly I limped back to the bike shop stopping and reinflating the tyre as it got down low.
I was quite disappointed to have to stop however I enjoyed what I did see, the high mountain roads were stunning. There was not time to wait for another bike to come in tot rent then go back as next I was flying to Cebu and taking the ferry to Bohol to ride around there a few days.
Old Japanese bus rusting away on Cebu passenger port.
Well unfortunately I foolishly got sunburned swimming one day so did not do half the riding I had planned. However I did enjoy Alona beach where I was staying. There is a couple of bike rental areas and they have scooters and the XR200’s there as well as some of the better food I have had in the Philippines at the Bee Farm cafe which grows it’s own fresh produce.
This place is under rated being dismissed in Lonely Planet so it still has a nice relaxed feel to it and has not become a expensive tourist trap like Boracay by all accounts is.
Next I took a ferry to Dumaguete and my friend re-joined me there. We took another ferry to Siquijor island and rented Honda XRM125 bikes to ride around which are a clutch less 4 speed model very popular in the Philippines. Siquijor island is beautiful, the roads are well maintained and mostly free of traffic so you can really enjoy exploring the island.
Petrol station island style
I could have stayed there longer but my friend had talked about doing a ride from Dumaguete. Well you know how things don’t go to plan and again it did not work out. We could not find any bike rentals. I wanted to ride from Tanjay city to Santa Catalina, the road appears to wind its way through a spectacular mountain pass however in the end it was not to happen but I liked Dumaguete. I can see why many ex pats live there as it is both clean and not too busy yet has decent places the eat if not much choice in bars to play billiards from what I could find. Next was back to Cebu.
Crossing to Cebu island and the view near Oslob.
Once you cross onto Cebu island the road hugs the coast and is both very scenic and twisty and so another good ride would be north to about Dalagute but the road into Cebu city further north than this is not good.
I came across a place called MB’s Garden Hotel on the net who rent big bikes so made my way there to Lapu-Lapu on Mactan island across the water from Cebu city. MB’s turns out to be the biker clubhouse for the Outsider Motorcycle Club Philippines but it was not problem to stay and a nice place, very reasonable price with good food and cold beer. My friend did not like the place so we again went off to do our own things a few days.
Shanty towns that can be found everywhere in Philippines
MB’s had a rental shop mostly with cruisers which on Philippines roads don’t make any sense and a few standard bikes but most were booked and I ended up taking a near brand new Yamaha YBR125 which was a full size bike but with small capacity engine as is popular (and sometimes the government limit) in SE Asia. I think it was made in Indonesia and like the CBR150 went quite well with a very high revving single cylinder but the tyres were not so nice. Labelled Sony Power’s, I don’t recall Sony going into the tyre business.
The ride to the other side of Cebu island is superb, just a couple of photos and the view overlooking Cebu City. If you do this ride and want to see the best views people will say go to Tops but where they mean is the place that is signposted Mountain View Restaurant. Some clever people have made a sign marked Tops which takes you to a small lookout where you are slugged 100p entry. The other is far nicer and with lots of facilities.
My trusty old GPS above. The mighty YBR125 sits brooding below.
I had previously spent a day exploring Mactan island but never found the nice beaches that people say are there so joined in a fiesta which was very colourful, noisy and chaotic – just how the Philippines is ha-ha.
I took my good camera out for a visit to the famous Simala church (above) after realising I could use it with the electronic viewfinder still (after screen was cracked in Thailand) but ended up putting it away for rest of trip still. I always intend to use it but the size means I end up only carrying the phone.
Next I flew to the island of Palawan. This trip was separate to the above travel but for convenience writing this blog I shall just continue. My target destination was El Nido starting first in Puerto Princesa. The road from there to El Nido is the only one in the Philippines I have seen mentioned on the net as good riding. However my friend who had already been there said it was a too far to attempt on small bikes and the upper portion was unsealed and very rough and would be treacherous if it rained.
I looked around Puerto Princesa and there were bike rental shops mostly with the XRM125 and a couple with Kawasaki 150 road trail bikes and yes they said very far and last part is dirt track so I took the bus which I was told would be up to 8 hours.
Puerto Princesa harbour
Well the road deserves it’s listing on Best Biking Roads site, it is actually superb until the dirt, perhaps the best I have seen in the Philippines, well maintained, light traffic sweeping along beside the ocean and crossing a couple of mountain ranges. A beautiful road but I will admit the last 20 k of dirt is very rough. It is being sealed in parts as of writing this and once finished will no doubt will attract lots of riders. I don’t mind a bit of dirt so it was attractive to me already I just had a sore knee from a slip trip and was unsure about riding that far but figured even on a Honda XRM it would be doable in a day.
In El Nido there are more than 10 bike rental spots (not exaggerating) but nowhere much to ride as the sealed road ends about 5k in any direction. They do good business all the same renting at 700-900 peso to cashed up European backpackers who all seem to have read about the place in Lonely Planet.
I got my hotel to find me a XRM eventually for 500peso which is still expensive but I wanted to explore. I took a ride up north to Nactan beach and getting there was at times challenging on the exposed stones the road deteriorated to but later it returns to normal dirt so stick with it as certainly a scenic area.
Above Twin beach and Nactan Beach. Below Las Cabanas.
El Nido town itself is kind of a tourist trap in that it has expensive rooms for rent that do not have hot water or flushing toilets and some very expensive and very poor quality food. To the south of the harbour is much better and much nicer beach too. I found a shop that was willing to do one way rental on a XRM back to Puerto Princesa but I got one last bad roll of the dice in the shape of food poisoning which rendered me unable to stand up let alone ride so took a bit to recover and could not do the last planned ride. I actually already had mild food poisoning in Angeles city after the bike ride there too so food hygiene is something of an issue.
In summary then I still enjoyed most of the trip and will revisit some time in future. Something I learnt for then is bring a couple of tyre repair solutions! The stand out parts were the surprising highlands of the mountain province in Luzon and the great potential for fun if you were to island hop and explore by a moto with a companion. With over 7000 islands there is certainly a lot of places to go. The negatives are accommodation and food are a fair bit below the quality of the rest of SE Asia yet more expensive.
I would not let either deter you going just be prepared. Other things are affordable and some aspects are better than rival destinations depending on what your doing and want to include on your travel. Another matter to be prepared for is there are guns everywhere. There are security guards for just about anything and they all carry either hand guns or pump action shotguns. After awhile you get used to it and I am old enough I grew up at a time when Australia still had guns at home and if you come from USA you won’t bat an eye lid but other people will find this confronting especially compared to rest of Asia. The best thing for me was the people who are very friendly to me and being able to speak to everyone as English is a second language everywhere.
If you want a packaged tour ride then try the guys at Mabuhay Motorcycle Tours they have some nice looking tours. The small cruiser bikes they rent are really not all that suitable for the bumpy Philippine roads in my opinion. The Honda XRM’s I rented are ok but better again was the YBR in Cebu although it was slightly underpowered . Ideal bikes would be 400cc imports from Japan which could be used on the expressways too.
Well that’s all for now from me in the Philippines.