Philippines, Micronesia & Marshall Islands: No Worries Atoll

The idea for this trip came about rather suddenly when plans for another trip began to fall apart. Now I’m not sure when they’ll reopen the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but if I don’t get a solid travel fix at least once a year, then my mental condition will likely start deteriorating. That this was only a three-week trip as opposed to the two-three month one originally planned was simply a condition of circumstances. The overall plan is to visit every country in the world, and I’ve already been to 140 out of the 192 UN member countries, so options are limited to further that goal. Since I’d never been to Philippines, Micronesia or the Marshall islands, then this quickly became my favored option. The fact that none of them requires a time-consuming visa also helps. The fact that the most economical way to visit one island is to visit the others also is a contributing factor.

The fact that none of them are particularly suited to a farther-ranging tour is also a factor, though that is a debatable point now, what with multiple budget airlines in the Philippines. The original idea was to stop over on the way to Bangkok, but that’s about $1500 round-trip from LA on Philippines Air. Manila itself is only $800, Bangkok maybe $1000, IF YOU’RE LUCKY. A budget RT MAN-BKK for $300-400 changes the equation entirely. But that’s next time. This time Manila was my ultimate destination, with stops in Guam; Pohnpei, FSM; and Majuro M.I. on the way back, for around $1800 from LA, and I worked hard for that price. I probably could have stopped in Hawaii, too. A simple RT from Guam to Majuro and Pohnpei costs almost the same. Do the math.

The Philippines was something of a revelation, a return to a previous era when travel was just fun in the sun, winging it, show up and hop on the bus, no reservations and few plans. You’ll come out ahead that way there. This is the way I first started traveling, before all the hostels, before the Internet, before all the guide books even, fer Chrissakes! Hotels are plentiful and cheap and easy to find. Walk-in rates are generally better than reserved ones. This way you get to check the room first, too. Make sure there’s a window if you’re claustrophobic like me. Buses not only don’t book online, they don’t even book in advance, none of them (or hardly any, anyway)! Just show up. Good luck finding the station(s) in Manila. I hate to say it, but … ssshhh…ask a cabbie.

Manila sucks pretty badly, but the rest of northern Luzon makes up for it. Don’t let the street urchins in Manila get too close to your pockets. Other than that, I don’t think crime’s too bad unless you’re too stupid or too careless or too horny. The area around Malate and Ermita is just too congested—as is the entire country—so it’s easy to get into a foul mood, and from there things can degenerate rapidly. Use Manila as a hub for other destinations and that’ll probably be enough time on the layovers. Many budget airlines won’t connect directly to far-flung destinations, so use the big city for those overnighters. Don’t forget to wear protection. Intramuros is nice for a day trip, and Chinatown is not bad, but other than that there’s not much of interest. The slick new city of Makati I haven’t been to yet. The LRT is cramped beyond belief; avoid rush hours.

I used Baguio as a hub for the north of Luzon, and from there went first to Vigan, a UNESCO world heritage site for its Spanish colonial architecture and culture. It’s pretty nice and small, with access to the coast not far away. That’s coast, not beach. They even have some vestiges of the old Spanish cuisine, with their own style of empanadas and a hybrid Spanish/Asian rice soup called arrozcaldo, which is everywhere to be found in the Micronesian region now. About this time I had my second revelation: I’m the only tourist here, or almost anyway, same in Baguio. I imagine the beaches are different, but that’s not my obvious orientation. Luzon has some hill country second to none.

Baguio is the gateway to the hill country, itself almost a mile up, and a fairly large city. We Americans built that as a hill station escape from the sweltering tropical heat. There’s some entertainment, too, more like guys with guitars than girly bars, so good clean fun. It gets a bad rap from some travelers—I’m not sure why—but I like it okay. As a matter of fact on first arrival and transport to my upscale hotel—the only one I could book in advance—It clearly resembled the rarefied atmosphere of a mountain town. It was only later that I realized there was a nittier grittier “real town” on the down side. The market is huge and ample, with lots of crafts. After a couple days there before and after Vigan, I took the locals’ bus up to Sagada on the infamous Halsema Highway. It’s not as dangerous as it’s hyped up to be, though you might avoid a heavy meal right before the trip.

Sagada is backpacker country, custom-made for it in fact, complete with yogurt parlors and views from the terrace. The big attraction there are the caves, but you’ll need a guide for that. Other than that it’s just a hippie hangout in the classic style, banana pancakes and rumors of the kind stuff floating through the grapevine if not the air itself. There’s plenty of accommodation for the winter—a bit chilly, mind you—but it might fill up in high season. None of these places are bookable online to my knowledge, either in real time or back-and-forth e-mails, old-fashioned I’m tellin’ ya’.

If you get stuck with no luck, go down to Bontoc and reconsider your options, or continue on to Banaue, which is the best reason to be in the area anyway. I personally like it there better than Sagada, but I’m not trying to get blissfully stoned. Hotels in both places talk about a 9 p.m. curfew, but I’d be curious to know what transpires if you bully yourself past that deadline, with the requisite nod-nod-wink-winks. The Jamaican joints at Sagada might really rock. The jeepney from Bontoc to Banaue is a little hairy and scary on the brain cells. Be prepared.

Banaue may not be the only place in Luzon with beautifully terraced rice fields, but it may be the only one with a real town plopped down in the center of it. Others occur along the way with no fanfare, and Batad is the nearby option for those who want to hang in the area a while, and have had enough of Sagada and Banaue already. Access must be arranged—and hiked—but it’s supposed to be really nice. But my time was running short, so I headed on back to Manila, staying in a little bit different part of the Ermita-Malate area. That whole area seems to change from street to street, some places very upscale, others down at the heels. Local food seems to be more the ladle-over as opposed to stir-fry-it-up style, so maybe questionable by the end of the day. I ate late at 7-11 more than once, nuke some adobo or curry right up and eat. God help you if you’re vegetarian. These are Christians. There is no tradition of vegetarianism.

After the Philippines I went to Guam, a necessary connection point for the Micronesian milk-run, aka UA/CO flight #172 to Honolulu with stops in Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae, FSM; then there are stops in Kwajalein and Majuro in the Marshall Islands. So what takes six or seven hours direct stretch to twice that with stops, but like I said: at this price, the stops are free. UA is making a killing off this route, high prices and full seats. So I decide to take a layover in Guam for a couple nights, rather than take a red-eye and then connect straight out. Fortunately it’s not expensive, though it tries really hard to be, what with its hyper-malls full of Versace, Armani, Prada, and all that means so much to brand-conscious Asians.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Guam is a Japanese colony. What with tourists and residents factored in together, they just might predominate. The mixed-Micronesian “Chamorros” are the true locals, though, and as part of the Marianas Islands have a long history part Micronesian, part Spanish, part Asian, and now American, so something like Samoa of the North Pacific. Guam is not really in the South Pacific, you know, lying at roughly the same latitude as Bangkok or Manila, so north of the Polynesian heartland.

Except for a couple of Polynesian atolls, presumably settled last, and a couple of others of uncertain provenance, much of Micronesia seems to have linguistic affinities with Melanesia, so must have been explored at that early phase, before the major Polynesian migrations, possibly even before Melanesia become “mela,” that is dark-skinned, possibly by mixing with an earlier Papuan populace I reckon. Anthropologists don’t talk abut these things, nor apologists either, but that doesn’t mean I can’t. I’d bet you even odds they left the mainland to escape the southward Han Chinese expansion.

Next stop was Pohnpei, more or less the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia, which fuses together the four distinct island cultures of Yap, Chuuk (Truk), Pohnpei, and Kosrae. Flight 172 doesn’t go to Yap, so that wasn’t really an option. Chuuk seems to have an attitude problem—specifically to foreigners/divers—so I decided on Pohnpei. I’m not sure if I was aware that Kosrae was on the flight route, or I might have considered it further, especially since it has oceanic ruins that rival those at Nan Madol on Pohnpei. As it was I allocated four days to make sure and get to those ruins, which was at least a day too long, especially since the power was off almost half the time. Other than that the town was nice enough, small town thrills, drinking sakau and chewing betel nut.

Majuro in the Marshall Islands is something completely different. Those are true coral atolls, not fertile volcanic islands, and the climate is accordingly breezier. Even though it rains frequently, it will usually clear right up just as fast and dry out quickly, which is good since there’s nowhere for the water to drain down to, the entire atoll being only a few feet above sea level. This is similar to another—but opposite—extreme climatic situation in Tierra del Fuego, where the winds blow so hard that you can have several changes of weather each day. And in the vast insular Pacific those breezes can be surprisingly cool at night. As usual you really need a boat to get to the prime diving or even snorkeling sites, but roaming around town is not bad. The atoll is more or less settled all along “long island,” and heavily commercialized by immigrant Chinese entrepreneurs. Still local village life endures and the natives are friendly.

Throughout the trip and presumably the region, there are problems with travel. Aside from the Philippines and Guam, the hard part is just getting there. United Airlines pretty much holds the monopoly on air travel they inherited from Continental, and they don’t intend to show any mercy, unless the frequent references to “pass travelers” means that locals maybe get a break. If so, that’s fine, but doesn’t do much for tourism. The airports don’t seem to have much activity otherwise, though they’re certainly capable of it. I wonder if Continental built them. Stranger things happen.

In the Philippines the transportation problem is the plethora of bus stations around greater Manila, which seem to show no pattern of consistency or logic. If you’re a local, then sure, you “get it,” but once again, that doesn’t help tourism much. What does help are the emergence of multiple budget airlines, which, given the population explosion and ensuing congestion there, is maybe just as well. So that’s good news for the outer islands, but less so for northern Luzon, which is truly worth seeing. Hotels in the Philippines are pot luck. Many of the nicer ones don’t have windows—AARRGGHH!—and many of the cheap ones don’t have electric sockets. Arrive early, no res, see the room first, carry a light bulb-to-plug adaptor.

Micronesia has different problems. FSM has no power. RMI has no water. I was able to borrow an Internet signal in Pohnpei, so lucked out, but in Majuro the price of a Wi-fi card was so high that I simply did without. The groceries in both countries are pretty bad and the restaurants not much better—they use the same produce—and pricey to boot. FSM has more fresh fish and vegetables; RMI has more fresh Chinese people. Take your pick. Guam is the great exception of course, retrofitted by Japanese tourism and American imperialism as a somewhat generic Asian-American-Micronesian mélange-a-trois. I guess traditional culture there has suffered, but it’s difficult to quantify without public transportation to the south of the island where it’s said to still exist. Rental cars should be an exotic option, not the norm. In Majuro, everybody takes taxis…everywhere.

Still the positives outweigh the negatives by far, and the region as a whole lures a jaded traveler like a siren in the night… in the water. I for one would be curious to see what the other non-Guam Mariana Islands are like. Maybe that’ll be next trip, or next year, or the next life. Whenever, next time I resolve to actually get into the water. I’ve already got a mask and snorkel. C U then.

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