It’s called the Philippines’ last frontier, one of most “exotic” among the country’s major islands. Somewhat isolated along the western edge of the archipelago, stories have been told of it’s pristine waters, unspoiled beaches, untouched forests and flourishing wildlife. The Philippine tourism industry is hard at work promoting the country to the worlds’ travelling public, and almost everytime the Philippines is shown to the world, something within Palawan takes the top spot, or close. They say “It’s more fun in the Philippines”, and we wanted to see how much Palawan adds to that fun.
Isolated as it is, the only way to get to the island of Palawan from the country’s capital in Manila is through a longish journey through the sea, or a short hop by air, though thanks to the country’s vibrant low cost carrier industry, the latter is a viable option even on a budget.
Most flights land and depart at the provincial capital, Puerto Princesa. The city is served by an airport that looks rather unassuming, and almost betrays the province’s status as a prime tourist spot. The best way to describe the city’s airport is “a long piece of flat concrete with a small building on one corner”. For most people, Puerto – as it is commonly called – is the gateway and jump-off point to the rest of the island, but this little city holds its own charms that makes it a worthwhile destination by itself.
There are no taxis in Puerto, well at least not in the way that taxis look like in most developed places. Here the tricycles rule the road, with the exception of multicabs (small vans) that take the place of jeepneys. Tricycles could be hailed from just about anywhere, and will take you just about everyhere their small engines could go. They (should) cost around 15 pesos per person per trip, although we often gave a little bit extra. Some drivers will quote a higher price though, so just be conscious of what the price should really be, and haggle down or turn them away.
Palawan is also one of the most tourist oriented provinces in the country, and not surprisingly tour vans, owned by travel agencies, make up the bulk of private vehicles plying the road. Puerto Princesa has a well developed (by Philippine standards) tourism industry, and to give you a hastle free trip, I highly recommend booking your trips with one of the ubiquitous travel agencies.
Puerto also has a high density of good hotels. Although you can’t go looking for a Westin here, many of the hotels in the city offer good value, especially if you are a “no frills” type of traveler. One of the newest is the Puerto Princesa branch of the low cost Go! Hotel chain. It’s a little bit out of the way from the city center (around 15 minutes by tricycle) but is right beside their newest and greatest mall, the Robinson’s Place. The downside of being far from the center is made up for by the convenience. As in most Go! hotels, this one is spartan, simplistic, but it’s very clean and charming, and perfect if all you need is a place to crash during the evenings.
Whenever I travel, the question of “what can I see here?” always has an indispensable twin – the question of “what can I eat here?” – and Puerto has pretty good answers for both.
Isla Casoy De Palawan
Palawan is known throughtout the country as a good source of cashew nuts (“kasuy” in Filipino), and just as natural as how Davao managed to add durian (the fruit that tastes like heaven and smells like hell) into coffee, they put cashew into coffee as well. I tried a cashew frappe at the Isla Casoy de Palawan, and what I found was a good blend that offers a break from the diabetes-inducing sweetness of frappes from the likes of Starbucks. It was good, though it not exactly heaven – pure coffee lovers may not appreciate it. But it smells far from hell.
Isla Casoy de Palawan is at the Mercato San Miguel, along the Puerto Princesa North Road. Mercato San Miguel is also a good place to look for souvenirs, and all tricycle drivers should know where it is.
Now this one is worth flying to Puerto for. Ka Lui is one of the most popular restos in the city, and in my honest opinion, it deserves the fame. They serve the region’s richest bounty, the bounty of the sea, and they do it really well.
We tried their Sahimi, Tuna Steak and Lobsters in Butter and Garlic. The Sashimi was really fresh, though unlike authentic Japanese, they served it on a bed of fresh seaweed. I didn’t mind the “inauthenticity” however, as I enjoyed the seaweed. The Tuna Steak was good but nothing noteworthy, however the star of the night was the Lobster. Given I’ve only had lobster a few times in my life, it was probably the best lobster I’ve had. We had half a kilo of it for less than a thousand pesos, which you’d be lucky to find at that price in most big cities in the country. Ka Lui is perhaps the closest to “fine dining” that Palawan could offer, but prices are definitely far from it.
Ka Lui is just along the city’s main thoroughfare (Rizal Drive). Reservations, however, are necessary.
Palawan was once home for refugees who escaped from Vietnam as a result of the Vietnam war. Most of the former refugees have now gone on to greener pastures, and sadly there are few memoirs of them left, however if there’s one thing they left behind as legacy, it’s their food. One of the most popular in Puerto is the Pho (rice noodles in soup), which they call locally as “chaolong”. There are still a number of places in the city that serve chaolong, and it’s not be missed.
Pho Saigon, just around a kilometer north of Go! Hotel offers the most affordable Vietnamese dishes I have seen in the country. Their Pho Bo Kho costs only 60ph for one good sized bowl, and the fresh seafood spring roll that we had was only 55php. It costs less than a Jollibee value meal, and is way more satisfying! And if you ever go there, try the Bahn Mi Bo (French Bread with Beef) – I never thought much of French Bread, until I had this.
Puerto also has its own treats for the sweet tooth. The most popular pastry shop and cafe in the city is Divine Sweets. Originally found only within the city center, they have also opened a new branch inside the Robinson’s Place, making it more accesible if you happen to stay nearby. They have a wide range of cakes and a full menu of dishes, though we only got to try a slice of their mango cheesecake and a cup of their white chocolate latte, due to our short and hectic itinerary. We can tell the cheesecake was made of real sweet mangoes, and was not “cheated” by adding a lot of sweeteners, but the white chocolate latte was too sweet especially when taken with the cake. Perhaps I should just have had plain brewed coffee instead.
Another popular restaurant along Rizal Drive is Kinabuch’s, although unlike Ka Lui, this one also doubles as a late evening hang out spot. Their menu has a wide range of Filipino dishes, and I must say they are not bad either, although they don’t come close to Ka Lui in terms of bang for the buck. The good thing is no reservations are required here, and so it’s a good place to go to for a quick bite, or a quick drink.
* All photos taken last June 2012, using an Olympus EPM-2 with Zuiko 14-42mm IIR.