The first thing that strikes you about the island province of Palawan in the Philippines is its cleanliness. There is nary a cigarette butt, sweet wrapper, plastic bottle or discarded tissue in sight. Small wonder that this gem of an island has been repeatedly voted as the cleanest and greenest province in the country, thanks to its anti-littering laws.
But that is not all; Palawan has just been named world's top island last week, based on over 76,000 votes in Conde Nast Traveler's Readers' Choice Awards 2014, edging out some of the more popular islands around the globe such as Maui in Hawaii and Santorini in Greece.
Known mostly to locals and well-travelled foreigners, the island is rich with many beautiful sights and natural wonders - pristine beaches, coral reefs and lush greeneries. Home to two Unesco World Heritage Sites, Palawan contains the Philippines' best kept heritage, culture and nature attractions.But after its claim to the top spot, one can expect a surge of tourists.
Before the awards, our group of journalists and travel agents were privy to what the island has to offer, courtesy of the Philippines Department Of Tourism (Malaysia office), which organised a four-day familiarisation trip to Palawan's capital city of Puerto Princesa. We flew Cebu Pacific Air from Kuala Lumpur to Manila, and thereafter caught a domestic flight to Puerto Princesa.
On arrival at the city, we were offered a quick glimpse into the folk and cultural dances of the indigenous groups on the island, which bore some resemblance to other tribes in the South-East Asian region. Quickly, we were scuttled off into vans and buses for the two-hour windy drive to Sabang, a small village used as an entry point to the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site and one of the new Seven Wonders of Nature.
Along the way, we made a surprise stop at Ugong Rock Adventures in Tagabinet village for a taste of zip-lining across paddy fields, and grazing cows and bulls. Fresh off the plane, none of us were dressed for the slippery hike, but decided to plunge into the activity anyway. Despite the drizzle and threatening skies, the more adventurous in the group opted to squeeze into little nooks and crevices in a dark cave to get to the top of the rock.
From here, screaming our lungs out to scare the animals, we zipped down 380m in 21 seconds. It was an adrenaline rush, but to do it again meant another 30-minute climb into the caves.
The next morning saw us hopping onto a bangka to get to the entrance of the park. The vessel, which comes in various sizes, is an outrigger canoe used as a means of transportation for fishermen and island-hopping for tourists. Apparently, if you don't want to take the vehicle from the pier, you can also walk 5km along the jungle trail.
As one of the protected areas in the Philippines, the park features beauties such as old reserved forests, azure blue waters, white sandy beaches, diverse endangered wildlife species and one of the world's most impressive cave systems, with a series of spectacular limestone formations. The park also houses an 8.2km underground river, which is believed to be the longest navigable underground river in Asia and the second longest in the world. It flows directly to the South China Sea.
From the park, we had to hop onto another boat with a guide who explained the subterranean cave system featuring large chambers, stalactites and stalagmites. Surprisingly, the river was pretty wide. We negotiated through 1.5km before turning back, spotting many bats, scorpions and birds along the way. Just be careful that you get blessed with holy water and not bat droppings!
According to history, the cave is more than 30 million years old and believed to have been discovered by the Batak tribe. Since ancient times, they have inhabited a series of river valleys along the 50km stretch of the northeast coastline of what is today Puerto Princesa city.
Once we emerged from the river, it was time for a paddleboat ride to the mangrove swamp along the same river. Filipinos are known for their singing prowess and we were fortunate to have a bubbly singer as our guide. A great variety of healthily growing mangrove trees can be found here, in addition to snakes, monkeys and a range of birds. There is even a romantic little wooden walkway spot to get off for photos.
These little huts are perfect to have a picnic and watch the waves. These little huts are perfect to have a picnic and watch the waves.
A must-try on this tour is the tamilok, a woodworm which tastes like oyster (that's what I was told). It's a famous delicacy found in Palawan and looks like a worm although it's a mollusk found inside rotting mangroves. The word was apparently coined by two Americans who started calling one of their friends, "Tommy, look!" after seeing the locals pop a few into their mouths.
Our guide offered: "Tamilok is an exotic food. In the past, natives and fishermen ate it before going to work. But now it's hard to come by, so they sell like hotcakes in wet markets and restaurants."
To do our bit for the environment and to ensure the mangrove trees continue to thrive, we planted a tree each. Simple: We just stuck it to the ground!
The mangrove paddle tour takes visitors through a quiet, meandering river. A great variety of healthy mangrove trees can be found here, in addition to snakes, monkeys and a range of birds. The mangrove paddle tour takes visitors through a quiet, meandering river. A great variety of healthy mangrove trees can be found here, in addition to snakes, monkeys and a range of birds.
Back in the city, we headed off to the Palawan Wildlife Rescue And Conservation Centre. Adorning the main wall is the 5.33m skeleton of a crocodile. It was caught in a river while eating a fisherman for dinner. He eventually died. After five months in captivity, the poor reptile felt terribly confined and also died, from stress. It may have been the truth, but the story was related in such a comical manner by the guide that we had to burst out laughing.
Endangered species like the Philippine crocodile as well as other endemic wildlife to the island, such as the bearcat, are also protected in this sanctuary. Crocodiles of all ages are bred here and babies are released into the wild. However, while they may look cute, don't mess with them. A few young, irritated ones tried to nip our fingers when we attempted to take photographs.
Next stop: Baker's Hill. This is where you can find all kinds of Palawan delicacies, pastries and coffee. Delightfully landscaped with flowers, plants, an aviary and walking paths, it looked more like a theme park with live-sized figurines of celebrities (think Marilyn Monroe and Johnny Depp) and Disney characters. A stroll on the grounds presents many a photo-taking opportunity.
After a day exploring rivers and caves, the third day saw us discovering sun, sea and seafood. Consisting of several islets, Honda Bay is the exit point for island-hopping tours. Each island here offers different thrills, but Pambato (turtle-watching), Lu-li, Starfish, Panden and Cowrie are all great for swimming and snorkelling.
Lu-li is only visible during low tide and completely submerged underwater when the tide changes. We never saw it.
Again, what stands out in these islands is the cleanliness, especially the public toilets. If only we could teach Malaysians to keep their toilets spotless. Most of these islands are privately owned so over-nighting is not allowed. The thatched huts constructed are comfortable to relax after a swim, contemplate life or seek shelter from the sun.
Seafood is abundantly available here and the women peddlers will hound you with the day's catch and cook you a meal for a small price. We had a field day.
Also a haven for snorkelling and diving, Palawan province has a second Unesco World Heritage Site that is popular with undersea adventurers - Tubbataha Reef National Marine Park - but we had no time to explore this area.
We capped off the day with a firefly-watching activity at Iwahig that night. Taking place just before dusk, this tour allows you to get closer to nature and watch the flickering insects that light up like a Christmas tree. Fireflies live amongst the mangroves, which are situated along the banks of the Sicsican and Iwahig Rivers.
I can't say this was spectacular as the fireflies were not in abundance.
The final day brought us to the Immaculate Conception Cathedral, known for its famous angular structures. And what better way to end the trip than a prayer, before souvenir-hunting at the local shops.
With a plethora of natural attractions, Puerto Princesa offers activities for travellers of all ages. If flying is not your preferred mode of transportation, try cruising the high seas. To discover what the city has to offer, hop on board Star Cruises, which will commence its 4D3N journey from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, to Puerto Princesa on SuperStar Aquarius from Nov 8, 2014, to March 1, 2015. For more information, please visit www.starcruises.com.