Time Travel in Palawan (Part 2): Finding Bliss and Bioluminescence

Fisherman in Sabang, Puerto Princesa

IN mid-October last year, two girls and a boy — ages three, seven and 11 — rode an airplane for the first time. They were going to this place said to be one of the most amazing in the world.

Their parents — my wife and I, that is — begged for clear skies. We got more than what we asked for: near-perfect weather and a smooth, turbulence-free plane ride to the island of Palawan.  

It had been six years since Bretha and I last set foot in Puerto Princesa. Now with three kids in tow, we had a feeling that this experience, though familiar, would even be more special. It was.

Island hopping on Honda Bay under clear blue skies

First, we were there less as a couple and more as parents, taking the kids to recommended tours in Honda Bay and the city, making them pose with a baby croc and a bearcat at the Crocodile Farm, letting them loose on quirky but fun Baker’s Hill, and taking them to Palawan’s famous “prison facility,” the Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm, where benign inmates stayed out of jail cells and hawked handicraft to willing tourists like us.

And then there’s Puerto Princesa’s emerging food culture. We couldn’t pass up on the chance to eat some tamilok, that translucent elongated mollusk that feeds on mangrove driftwood, in Sabang.

Also, acting on the hotel guard’s tip, we found this hole-in-the-wall called Bona’s Chaolong, which served the best Vietnamese-style noodles in town.

Also, acting on the hotel guard’s tip, we found this hole-in-the-wall called Bona’s Chaolong, which served the best Vietnamese-style noodles in town.

The beef or pork bone stew with rice noodles — garnished with mung bean sprouts and min — is a culinary tradition left behind by Vietnamese refugees who settled in Palawan more than two decades ago. Paired with freshly baked French bread sandwiches, chaolong can be habit-forming.

But what made that journey really special was having experienced, as a family, Puerto Princesa’s best-kept open secrets: the underground river tour and firefly watching. We could miss the other city tours but not these two.

No Cyan, it’s not ice candy

Urban sprawl and the ‘peak season’

There was only one downside to the entire Palawan trip: we noticed that the city center, especially along the main thoroughfares, had lost some of its charm. This became apparent shortly after our arrival, as we rode through the city streets on board a tricycle, whose driver sidelined as our tour guide.

It can be disorienting to find what six years of development can do to a city that only dozens of kilometers away hides a natural wonder 20 million years in the making.

The urban sprawl that greeted us in Puerto Princesa was impressive and jarring at the same time. Tricycles and automobiles choked the main thoroughfares now lined with multi-story, some uninspired, concrete structures on lots where majestic trees once stood. In short, Puerto Princesa had become a typical progressive Philippine city, no different from the one we had tried to escape momentarily from.

Despite all these, much of Puerto Princesa’s 2,381 square kilometers remained very much “livable” and didn’t seem crowded.

As our tricycle shuttled through the highway, I spotted a number of backpackers milling outside vans at a “terminal.” Meters away, another group of tourists emerged from a convenience store. Wasn’t it the wet season?

“When’s the peak season, Manong?” I asked the tricycle driver in Tagalog.

It took him a moment to answer.

“All the time. It’s now peak season here all the time,” said our driver, whom we later learned left the capital in the 80s and stayed for good in Puerto Princesa, at a time when the only travelers who wound up there were those who wanted to get lost.

‘No Permit, No entry’ policy

Our driver, though, had no complaints now that Palawan is a full-blown tourist destination, mainly due to the inclusion of the Puerto Princesa Underground River (PPUR) as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature earlier last year, setting off huge waves of publicity that reached distant shores.

As a result, local and foreign tourists were now arriving by the planeloads. The government and community were caught by surprise. So were travelers like us.

In 2006, going to the underground river was such a breeze, if you didn’t mind the poor condition of the dirt roads. Now, tourists who hadn’t made reservations had to take their chances at the Underground River Booking Office in the city proper and wait for hours.

Waves of tourist started arriving on Palawan’s shores

“We didn’t expect the tourists to come in droves,” a government employee at the booking office told us. They had to implement a “No Permit, No Entry” policy to control access to the underground river to 900 visitors a day. This was to protect the fragile ecosystem of the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park.

We were lucky to get slots for the next day’s trip.

That night, to make the most of our stay, we took a nearby ecological tour that was offered only in 2010 yet: firefly watching in the Iwahig River. That nighttime ride on a paddleboat turned out to be an transformative 45-minutes of unforgettable beauty.

Statue at Puerto Princesa Baywalk, but the text on the corroded plaque was unreadable

Lasting impression

As expected, the Underground River tour left a lasting impression on our children, lighting the pristine caverns inside their heads with wonder.

The road trip to PPUR the next day aboard a spacious van was comfortable – our kids hardly complained. The entire 76-kilometer road leading to Sabang was paved, cutting travel time to a smooth two hours. (In 2006, it was three hours of rough road). The outrigger boat ride from Sabang to the PPUR entrance was just as smooth, considering the weather was unpredictable that time of year.

As for our boatman, he went on with his routine of identifying each stunning rock formation, many named after vegetables (e.g. The Mushroom), animals (e.g. The Crocodile), and religious references (e.g. the Holy Trinity). There were some Rated R material to be named but he held back (kids, were on board, he figured).

The boatman that took us to the Underground River entry point gave the kids these origami made from palm fronds
5 of the 900 lucky travelers who are allowed access to the Underground River that day
Arwen in her element at the entry point of the Underground River

Yet the perfunctory way the boatman conducted the PPUR tour was in stark contrast to how his Iwahig River counterpart does his. Both go about their task in the darkness, paddling through even darker waters, but their methods of touring guests are different.

While an underground river boatman is content to draw laughs by assigning quotidian, often half-comical, names to otherwise spectacular stalactite and stalagmite formations millions of years old, a boatman in the Iwahig River tour strives to educate his passengers, both young and old, on the importance of Puerto Princesa’s eco-tourism projects.

And whoever runs the Iwahig tour gets it: visits to Palawan aren’t justfor sightseeing — they can be about gaining a deeper insight of how vibrant yet fleeting life is. One only has to see the fireflies and mangroves along the river banks to understand.

…visits to Palawan aren’t just for sightseeing — they can be about gaining a deeper insight of how vibrant yet fleeting life is. One only has to see the fireflies and mangroves along the river banks to understand.

Where to next, little feet, big feet?

Watching fireflies

In the Iwahig tour the night before, we jumped into two paddleboats, each with its own boatman. The smaller kids — Arwen and Cyan — stayed with Bretha, while Amber, our eldest, was with me.

Our boatman carefully paddled away from the faintly lit wooden dock by the river bank and into the darkness, trailing the other boat slightly ahead. He talked about the firefly, its short lifespan (from a few days to a couple of months), how it produces light (bioluminescence, enzymes and all), and why it glows (to select mates).

“Fireflies thrive in mangrove forests, like those lining the river banks,” our boatman said in a mix of English and Tagalog, as he points his laser pen at a cluster of mangroves, their contours visible in the darkness.

An unforgettable 45 minutes in the darkness up and down the Iwahig River
Crocodile handicraft

As the boatmen talked, all five of us children listened attentively. From time to time, both of them would keep silent, almost motionless.

“Are there crocodiles in the river?” I heard a little girl’s voice ask from the other boat. The boatman assured there was none in the Iwahig River, which flows toward the penal colony.

In the distance, a clump of mangroves slowly flickered with thousands of tiny lights. I could hear the five of us holding our breath in awe.

Mangrove seedlings at one of the uninhabited islands of Honda Bay

As we drifted farther into the river, more and more mangroves along the banks lit up.

“Fireflies thrive where the air is clean,” our boatman said. “So you can see that there’s no pollution here.”

There was only the fresh air and the clear sky, through which the brightest moon and the brightest stars shone.

“Fireflies thrive where the air is clean,” our boatman said. “So you can see that there’s no pollution here.”

The boatman pointed his laser pen at a star then traced the Big Dipper, then the Small Dipper, then Cassiopeia. My wife, my children and the child in me were transfixed.

My thoughts began to drift. I thought about the light that traveled all the way from those constellations and the number of light years it took to get to this part of Palawan.

I wondered about the light that burns inside every firefly. Bioluminescence: what a big word for such a small thing.

Bretha back in the Underground River, this time with the kids


(A version of this article was published on SunStar Travel in July 2013)

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