The most obvious choice for a trip to Philippines would have been Cebu. It's very touristy with lots of nice beaches. I'm not that big on beaches, or tourists for that matter, so I chose to go to the big dirty city of Manila - just a 3 hour direct flight from Bangkok.
The start to my trip wasn't great. I was in Manila for less than a minute before getting scammed by a policeman for 200 Pesos. (100 Pesos = $2.15 USD = £1.52 GBP)
I'd just cleared customs and was looking to buy a local prepaid 3G SIM card. That's standard practise when I arrive in any country, but I especially needed it on this trip to contact my Airbnb host to get the keys for the condo unit I was renting.
Strangely, I couldn't find a kiosk selling SIM cards. I knew that there had to be at least one somewhere so I asked the policeman guarding the door, who immediately called over the boss policeman, who immediately whipped out a massive stack of SIM cards from his pocket. "Yes, I sell the SIM cards here, which one do you want?".
It was obviously very sketchy. I assumed that the police probably stop anyone selling SIM cards there so that they can sell them themselves and get the commission from them. Oh well, what did I care? And what choice did I have? He made it seem like he was selling the SIM cards at face value and I needed one and had nowhere else to get one.
I required a 300 Peso SIM card so that I could activate the 7 day internet package for 299 Pesos. The policeman insisted on taking my phone and setting up the SIM for me. I'd rather do it myself, but he insisted. That took him about 5 minutes, then I handed him the 300 Pesos. "No, it's 500" he snapped, with my phone still in his hand. "Sorry?" I asked. "300 Pesos for the credit and 200 for the SIM card" he informed me. What a dirty scam, but what could I do? I paid him and took my phone.
He then said he'd get a taxi for me. "No thanks mate, I'm going to the metered taxi queue over there" I told him. As I walked over I saw a small vending machine selling the 300 Peso SIM cards for 300 Pesos. Bastard!!!!
It wasn't until I was in the taxi that I realised that police sergeant Bastard didn't even set up my phone properly, Not only that but he kept the little setup information pamphlet that came with the SIM card. Fortunately I took a stab at creating default 'internet' APN and it worked, otherwise I'd have been screwed.
Obviously the amount of money I was scammed for was very small but still, it really pissed me off. I'm very experienced at travelling in third world Asian countries and thought I knew every scam in the book. Defeat isn't easy to accept, especially to a policeman. There's nothing you can do about it.
I decided to use Airbnb on this trip as there were properties listed that were twice as good and half the price of staying in hotels.
I rented a nice modern studio unit on the 44th floor of Birch Towers in Malate for $30 USD per night (after negotiating a small discount with the owner), which had a balcony with an amazing view of Manila.
Possibly one of the best bargains I've ever had when it comes to travel accommodation. The building even had a gym with freeweights so I was able to get some decent workouts in while I was staying there.
If you sign up for Airbnb with my referral link you'll get a $35 USD / 25 GBP travel credit. I don't ever recommend anything unless I personally use it and think it's awesome. If you travel and haven't used Airbnb yet you really need to give it a go. You will save money and stay in cool and unique accommodation.
I got about 5 hours sleep before waking up at 3am to go on a hike outside of the city. I'd read in fellow traveler's blog about Mount Pico de Loro and decided to follow his itinerary to get there via public transport.
In my opinion reading blogs is the best way to find fun and interesting things to do on your travels. If you do what most people do - visit the "Top Things to Do" on Trip Advisor or a Lonely Planet book, then you're just going to end up at a bunch of tourist traps with a bunch of other sweaty white people.
I stuffed a small backpack with beef jerky and bottles of green tea and headed to the station to find the bus going to Ternate, Cavite.
I asked the driver when it was leaving and he said the bus leaves when it's full. Even though there were plenty of available double-seats on the bus I chose to sit next to the smallest, skinniest girl on the bus rather than leave it up to randomness. Clearly the best strategy if you're 100% going to have to sit next to someone.
The bus became full after 20 minutes but the engine didn't start. Their idea of full is when the aisle in the middle is full of people standing. When that happened off we went, straight onto the motorway. Seems safe.
The only option to get from the bus drop-off point in the small town of Ternate to the mountain is by trike. Trikes are a common form of transport in Philippines and are just regular motorbikes with a metal side car attached to them. Seems safe.
Before coming to the Philippines I'd read in some blogs about four or even 5 people sharing one trike to save money. Well I, alone, barely squeezed into the tin can that was attached to the bike.
After a rickety 40 minute journey and a few bangs to the head I arrived at the base of the mountain in the national park, ready to get some good exercise and fill my lungs with fresh air.
Early in the trail I had to walk through a stream full of large rocks. My foot slipped on one of the rocks and I looked down and only then did I realise that I was wearing the wrong shoes. I was wearing a pair of casual Sketchers memory-foam shoes that are super comfortable but not exactly suitable for hiking.
I decided to just power on and be extra careful with my footing.
After an hour and a half of hiking without a break I reached a small camp site near the summit of the mt. Pico de Loro - Spanish for 'The Parrot's Beak'. It's clear from the photo I took why it has this name.
The camp site was set up by locals who live there and make a living from selling simple selling rice meals, instant noodles and bottles of water and Gatorade to hikers - at an enormous mark-up.
That mark-up seemed justified after witnessing how they brought their goods to the top of the mountain.
At the summit is a huge monolith rock which is climbable. It's a little bit dangerous but the locals have attached ropes to the two toughest parts of the climb.
I met two 18 year old guys there who live at a village nearby and have climbed the rock about 20 times. They were extremely friendly. Friendly enough that I trusted one of them with my camera, worth about 3 months average Filipino salary, to take photos while his friend went ahead of me to show me how to climb the monolith.
I told him that I brought the wrong shoes and wasn't feeling comfortable climbing the monolith in them. He just laughed and pointed down to his own footwear - a cheap pair of flip-flops. He the went ahead and climbed the monolith so fast that I had to climb just as fast to keep up with him so that I could copy his footing. No time to look down or be scared.
What an incredible feeling it was standing on that rock and taking in the 360 degree view.
On the way back down the monolith, when I was using one of the ropes to rappel, my foot slipped and I smashed my elbow and head into hard rock. Little bit of bleeding but nothing serious. I just held onto the rope and regained my footing. Just as well that I can hold my body weight easily as letting go of that rope would have been a death sentence.
Getting down the the mountain was much more difficult that getting up it. The top is very steep with lots of loose stones so I played it safe, got on my arse and shuffled down.
Halfway back down I was trekking through the jungle and met a dude who was resting. He injured his knee and was waiting there for his friends to come back who went ahead to climb the monolith. He had brought food with him - Chicken Adobo and rice - that he offered to share with me.
Filipinos are incredibly friendly. I must have crossed paths with about 30 people on my way up and down the mountain and every one of them smiled and spoke to me, even if it was just "hi!".
When you spend most of your life living in a city you get used to ignoring strangers. Just walking by people all the time without even looking at them. Then you go climb a mountain in the Philippines and someone you met just 15 seconds ago is offering to share their meal with you.
I continued back down the mountain and drank the last of the green tea I brought. I was getting quite thirsty but found a small stream. The water looked clear and fresh but I wasn't sure if it was safe to drink.
I remembered hearing something like if you take the water flowing fast over rocks that's the safest water to collect from a stream. And it's a mountain, the water couldn't be coming from anywhere that it could be contaminated. So I filled a bottle and it was crystal clear. I tasted it and it tasted as good as expensive bottled mineral water.
It was so cold and refreshing that I sat there and drank 2 litres of it. I then continued my journey, to reach the base of the mountain only 15 minutes later, where they were selling bottles of water. Doh.
I asked the DENR staff "the water from that stream, it's safe to drink right?". They looked shocked and said "no, no it's not". I asked them "really? you guys never drink from there?". They looked at me like I was crazy - "no, no way, it will make you sick".
Fortunately I didn't get sick but drinking all that water still turned out to be a bad idea. During the bus ride back to Manila I was absolutely bursting for a leak. With more than an hour of the journey remaining and the pressure on my bladder excruciatingly painful I did the only thing that I could do.
I sat near the back of the bus where there were no passengers, closed the curtain for privacy and pulled out an empty green tea bottle from my bag. Now, being an online poker professional, I'm no stranger to the act of urinating into a bottle, but never in a moving vehicle and always with a large wide-mouthed bottle. This was a challenge.
As the bus rattled around, driving fast over the bumpy road, I sat on the edge of my seat, slid up the leg of my shorts and carefully lined up my chaps-eye with the mouth of the bottle. I thought about how lucky I was to be a guy. What would a female do in this situation? The relief I felt was incredible, for all of about 5 seconds before the bus hit a bump and I was peeing all over my hand, leg and the back of the seat in-front.
After re-gaining my composure I quickly filled up the 500ml bottle before I was anywhere near done. Uh-oh. With one hand being used to temporary stop the flow and the other hand being used to hold the full bottle I was in a tricky situation.
As I sat there, on public transport, covered in dirt and sweat from the hike, penis in one hand and a hot bottle of yellow piss in the other, I was just happy that nobody could see me at one of the least finest moments in my life.
I placed the bottle between my knees, freeing my right hand so that I could find the bottlecap and secure it. Of course as soon as the bottle was between my knees - BUMP, SPLASH.
While filling up the second bottle I had a sweat. Was I going to need a third bottle? Fortunately I made it with 50ml to spare. What a relief.
I had brought a pack of anti-bacterial wet-wipes with me so I was able to clean myself up, as wekk as the floor and the back of the chair in front. Just as well because about 10 minutes later we passed through a town and the bus filled with passengers.
Next hike I'm bringing proper shoes, filtered water bottle and a urethral catheter. Lessons learned!
I played some poker at City of Dreams which is one of the big new Macau-style casino resorts in the Manila Bay area. The poker room has nice tables with big leather executive office style chairs at every seat, well trained dealers and floor staff and free drinks.
Unfortunately smoking is allowed right outside the poker area and as I was only 2 meters from the rail I had to deal with a lot of second-hand smoke. Very disgusting, I could smell the smoke coming out of my hair when I had a shower that night.
I would consider pending a whole month in Manila in the near future and just grinding live poker. There's loads of casinos and card clubs there and the games feel quite soft compared to just about anywhere else.
I spent an afternoon in Intramuros - 'the Walled City'. It's the oldest district in Manila, surrounded by walls that were built in the late 16th century.
Many party of Manila feel very sketchy and unsafe to walk around in but that wasn't the case in Intramuros. Most of the buildings are used for government departments and also a large university. There's police everywhere. It's a very safe and friendly place to walk around and the people there are very friendly.
Everywhere I walked girls and effeminate dudes were saying "hi" to me. As I walked by one of them would see me and then nudge the others and they'd all stare at me. I guess they don't get many white guys walking around their neighbourhood.
I felt like an alien. But a loved alien. A group of 8 university girls even asked to have their photo taken with me. Maybe they confused me for Brad Pitt or something? Who knows?
As I walked into one street the smell of barbecued meat hit me right away and so I instinctively followed that smell.
A kid was grilling up lots of different meats that I had no idea what they were, But they smelled good so I bought three sticks. They tasted as good as they smelled. Hopefully what I consumed was pork, chicken and beef rather than rat, cat and dog.
During my time in Manila I was lucky enough to make a new friend. Elle is an Aussie-bred Aussie-bred Hawaiian-Venezuelan-Filipina girl who is really into wakeboarding.
It's always awesome to meet someone who has a cool skill. It's even more awesome when they're willing to teach you that skill. Elle took me to the wake park in her dad's Jeep the day after I met her.
My first attempt at wakeboaring resulted in me face-planting so hard that I hit the water before I even had time to close my mouth and eyes. Yet another mouth full of dirty water on this trip!
I did manage to stay up on my fourth attempt though.
Wakeboarding is a lot of fun, even as a beginner. I could get used to the lifestyle, hanging around the wake park in the sun sipping cold drinks then grabbing my board and whizzing around the water.
I hadn't been much impressed with Filipino food during my trip. It was my last night in Manila so Elle took me to one of her favourite restaurants so that I could try some good Filipino food before I left. Snails in coconut milk - yes it's delicious. You have to try it if you go to the Philippines.
The reason I travelled to Manila was to get a new visa from the Thai embassy there. Unfortunately, for the first time in my life my application was rejected for a very small reason that I could have easily rectified if I had time. I left my application to the last minute though and they wouldn't accept a bribe "sorry sir. we do not accept 'extra payment' in lieu of the required documentation".
I got back into Thailand on a 30 day visa-waiver so expect me to be travelling again soon. I'm thinking of going to Burma as it's right next to Thailand and so is extremely cheap and quick to travel to.