Palawan has a new attraction to explore - its capital, Puerto Princesa

Palawan has a new attraction to explore - its capital, Puerto Princesa
Emerald allure: The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Palawan may not be known as a tourist hotspot, but the most sparsely populated province in the Philippines is also the most beguiling.

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.

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