Manila and the Ferry to Puerto Princesa on Palawan Island

We were only staying in Manila for one full day and perhaps that is all you really need. We stayed in Chinatown at the Ramada for AUD$78 per night. Chinatown in Manila is unlike most other Chinatowns in the world and is very drab and lifeless. Chinatown is also the economic capital of the city. After arriving late the night before we set off early the next morning to see as much of the sights Manila had to offer as we could.

Manila has its own version of the tuk tuk and it is called a tricycle. The tricycle is an auto rickshaw consisting of an old derelict motorbike with a sidecar made for people less than five feet tall and 60 kilograms. Di and I are giants in the Philippines and we squeezed into a tricycle by me sitting on the seat with my head bowed forward, then Di plonked one of her cheek butts on my lap and the other cheek butt she prised into the space remaining on the seat. We had our necks bent forward and could see absolutely nothing outside the sidecar, as we bounced through the smelly, smoggy streets of Manila in search of, yes, a shopping mall.

Whenever Di and I arrive in a country and we intend to stay in for at least a week or so we always buy a local Sim card, and shopping malls tend to have the widest selection of internet providers. Getting out of a tricycle is no simple feat, in fact it takes planning, coordination, timing and brute strength. After we had straightened our backs out and popped a few vertebrates back in to place, we paid 150 Pesos (AUD$3.80) for the twenty minute trip to Robinsons Mall.  Our little squashed trip in the tricycle did, though, provide a great deal of entertainment to the Philippine locals who laughed at our impersonation of a can of sardines.

Manila was hot and steamy and the air-conditioned mall is an oasis in the concrete jungle. After buying our Sim cards, Di was not keen to walk around in the heat and humidity so she caught a real air-conditioned taxi back to our hotel, surprisingly she only paid 95 Pesos for the air-conditioned privilege (AUD$2.50) – looks like our friendly tricycle man ripped us off – what is the world coming to when tricycle (tuk tuk) people rip tourists off!!!!!

I walked off into the densely populated streets of Manila on my own. Walking the streets of big cities can be very time consuming getting from one tourist spot to another, especially when the local transport is so cheap, but what it does offer is a chance to see the real city and not just the tourist spots. I was pretty much left alone in my wanders with the occasional tricycle man stopping and offering their taxi service. I also try to stay on the main streets and I do google the areas to stay clear of.

My first stop was Rizal Park and the Rizal Monument. Rizal Park is the largest recreational park in Asia. The park is named after the hero of the 1896 revolution, Jose Rizal. The park is next to the old walled capital of Intramuros, National Library and the National Museum.

Rizal Park

The park is well maintained and easy to wander around. The park is famous as the place to hold demonstrations and political rallies. It has many monuments scattered throughout it, including the spot where Rizal was executed, monuments to heroes of the Second World War, Japanese Gardens, Chinese Gardens, a Planetarium, Butterfly Pavilion, open air auditorium, etc. There is plenty there except for shade, it is hot and with lots of areas being concrete you feel the sun beating down on you – bring a hat and an umbrella.

The Rizal monument

Heroes from WW2

The walk from the park into Intramuros does take you through some desperate slums and it seems like millions of people have simply erected their own house from whatever material they could find, near any bridge, overpass, train entrance, bus stop, or basically any vacant land they can find – it is not pretty viewing. Manila, surprisingly to me, is the most densely populated city in the world, with over 40,000 people per square kilometre. When you consider Delhi in India ‘only’ has just over 25,000 people per square kilometre, you begin to realise how densely packed the population of Manila is.

The walled city of Intramuros was built in the 16th Century by the occupying Spanish. You immediately feel like you have entered a different world when you walk through one of the eight gates of Intramuros. Sadly, it was virtually destroyed during the Second World War, as it was the site the Japanese army chose to make their final stand against the advancing American and Philippine armies. Since the war the entire city of Intramuros has been restored to its original condition. The streets are narrow and all the ‘old’ buildings have character from years ago. The area has the Manila Cathedral, Fort Santiago, the Plaza De Rosa, Casa Manila, there are many convents, schools, Universities and it is where the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Manila lives. The area is rich in history and is a good safe place to wander around.

The walled city

Manila cathedral

From there I wandered to the river and followed that to the bridge that leads to Chinatown. I was dismayed to see many shanties built along the river bank with people living in squalid conditions. I saw people walking naked, washing in the river, defecating in the river and looking at me with empty lost eyes. I didn’t feel unsafe just a great sadness as to how others have to live.

On entering Chinatown you pass through the Filipino/Chinese arches.

In Chinatown there are many banks in the area. These banks are heavily guarded with nearly military equipment. There are armoured vehicles that look like tanks transporting money. Every guard has a Glock, pump-action shotgun, bullet proof vest, and it is more intimidating walking past this than it was in the slum areas.

Our hotel was next to the Binondo Church or The Minor Basilica of Saint Lorenzo Ruiz, which was built in 1596. Lorenzo Ruiz was a Philippine missionary to Japan who was martyred for refusing to denounce Christianity and, as such, became the Philippines first saint and canonised in 1987. The church is famous for its domed roof and old bell tower, this bell tower rose to infamy with us when the ringing of its bells woke Diane each morning at 6am – if the Islamic call to prayer does not get you at sunrise, the Catholic Church bells will!

The walk took me about four hours and was generally enjoyable. After drinking a litre or two of water I was now ready for a quiet beer to ease my weary bones – a one litre bottle of San Miguel did just the trick and I only needed ‘one’.

That night Di and I walked around Chinatown and some of the streets are very dodgy indeed – we did not feel unsafe, it was just that the area was very poor and no tourists were around.

That was our (my) one day in Manila, enjoyable, interesting, but I had no desire to stay longer.

We chose to stay our two nights in Manila in Chinatown due to its proximity to the Manila Ferry port as, after waking to the chimes of Saint Lorenzo Ruiz’s bell at sunrise, we were catching the ferry to Puerto Princesa on Palawan Island.

As always Di and I are early wherever we go – we both hate being late. The ferry departed at 1.30pm and embarkation would commence from 9.30am – we were there at 9.15am just in case, just in case of what you may ask, nothing really, just in case of anything!

We were travelling with the ferry company 2GO on the ferry ‘St Augustine of Hippo’ – not sure what ‘hippo’ means but all the ferries in the fleet are named after saints for added ‘protection’. The journey to Puerto Princesa would take about 32 hours and would go via Coron Island. The ferry is the size of a small cruise ship. Di and I are now using our age to our advantage and we were given ‘priority’ early boarding because we are ‘old’ and need more time to do anything.

There are several classes of ticket on the ferry. The cheapest has the very cute name of Super Value Class. For this class of ticket you get a bunk bed on a deck without walls, yep it is open to the sea air, and you pay 1800 Pesos (AUD$45).

The next class was an indoor bunk, so you have walls around you and you are air-conditioned, for 1950 Pesos (AUD$49).

The next class is a four berth cabin for 2707 Pesos per person (AUD$67) and this includes a basic dinner, breakfast and lunch which contains lots of boiled rice and a small dollop of chicken, you wash this down with some terrible coffee. Di and I though lashed out and got a stateroom. The stateroom cost was 6700 Pesos for the two of us or about AUD$180 for the two of us. For this we got an air-conditioned room with a double bed and two bunk beds.

The room came with a fridge and hot/boiling water on request. We also got the same terrible dinner, breakfast and lunch as the cabin people. Paying AUD$90 each for the ferry was a bargain as the flight to Puerto Princesa can cost over AUD$110 each, depending on the season, and we got a nights accommodation on the ferry.

There is not much in the way of entertainment on board the ferry. There is a small restaurant, where the cabin people and the stateroom people have their awful dinner, breakfast and lunch, all washed down with terrible coffee of course. There is a shop which sells two-minute noodles, snacks, drinks and pre-made microwavable meals (the shop provides the use of a microwave free of charge). Then there is a bar. The bar of course sells alcohol and some snacks. From the moment we got on the ferry the bar played music at levels guaranteed to burst the strongest eardrum – you simply could not sit in the bar the music was so loud. There are also roosters and chickens on the ferry. The roosters are in direct competition with the bar staff to see who can cause the destruction of the most hearing, Di of course loves the sound of roosters at sunrise, I could just imagine rooster murder on the high seas the next morning.

There is not much open air deck space on the ferry and, what there is, tends to be taken up by the smokers. I love standing on deck watching cruise ships and these large ferries set sail – sadly again rubbish, plastic in particular, was strewn throughout the ocean of the port.

The bay and wharf area was again lined with shanty towns made from any material found and these slums looked like they were a rusty nail from crumbling into the sea – you just cannot imagine living there.

Shanty towns

Once free of the harbour the cruise to Coron Island and Palawan Island was an absolute delight. The weather was good, the ocean a flat beautiful blue and we passed many small islands. The time on board flew past.

The ferry arrived at Coron Island at the ungodly hour of 5am. We felt the ferry stop at Coron Island but that was about it and lapsed back into slumber. The voyage the next day was along Palawan Island and it was a delight sailing past all the small islands.

The ferry arrived at Puerto Princesa a bit earlier than expected at 8.30pm instead of the scheduled 9pm. The embarkation from the ferry was quick and easy. The walk out of the port takes about 15 minutes and then on exiting the gates you are inundated with tricycle riders, but NO normal taxis. With all of our luggage and us two being on the taller side, we thought there would be no way we could fit into one tricycle. You have to hand it though to the ingenuity of an Asian tricycle (tuk tuk) driver; they simply will not let any obstacle come between them and money. The driver used my backpack buckles to secure my backpack to the back of the tricycle. He then wedged Di’s backpack between my backpack and the tricycle frame – the driver did look at me once I was seated in the tricycle and said ‘you should put your hand through here and hold this backpack (Di’s) just in case it falls off’ – safety first in the Philippines!! Good idea my man! We were off on a bumpy, dusty old ride through the night time streets of Puerto Princesa – these tricycles are soooooooo @#$$#@#$$ uncomfortable!!!!!!!!!!!!

We only stayed for two nights at the very comfortable Hotel Centro. We only stayed two nights (one day really) as we would be returning to Puerto Princesa in two weeks for a full week. Thus the next day was a rest day by the pool and a blog writing day.

Full time travel does wear you down and after a rest day to recharge the battery we were making the tiring six hour cramped minivan journey to El Nido. The cost of the journey was 600 pesos each (AUD$16 each). Why are simple things so complicated? Di and I were picked up first by the minivan at 8am, we then picked up two Dutch girls and the van then sat at the side of the road. The driver said nothing to us, he just exited the van and sat in the gutter smoking.  Eventually one of the Dutch girls opened the van door and asked him what was happening – unbeknown to us we were sitting at the exit gate of the airport and waiting for two passengers to arrive – communication is not a strength of the Filipinos.

It was 9.20am when the two British passengers arrived and climbed on board the van. The driver then said that is everyone, there were only six passengers, great we all thoughts plenty of room. So what does the driver do next – get petrol of course – we had sat waiting for nearly an hour and when we set off he gets petrol – deep breaths, happy place – this will be a long day. Getting petrol turned into a unique experience, yep who would have thought getting petrol would be an adventure. The van drove to a petrol bowser with a ramp next to it, the vans’ front wheels were driven up the ramp and the petrol was pumped in. When the tank was full, the driver reversed off the ramp and then drove back up the ramp and another quarter litre was added to the petrol tank, this process occurred four times, up and down the ramp, before the driver was happy another drop could not go into the tank.

It was now nearly 10am and we had not left Puerto Princesa – we did though have a full tank of petrol. The driver said there are no more passengers and we set off for El Nido – finally!!!! We drove to the outskirts of town and the driver pulled over and a Philippine man got in the van. Then the driver drove another few hundred metres and a woman and a baby were standing by the side of the road and they got into the van. Di was in the front seat next to the driver so the woman with the baby sat next to me – oh no, a baby for the next five hours!!!!!!!!!!!

The van stopped and started for the next twenty minutes picking up local passengers on the side of the road until every one of the 14 seats in the van were occupied. After a couple of hours the local passengers started to get off the van, however, when exiting the town the driver would stop and pick up another local passenger – the driver was running his own taxi service with the vacant seats – fortunately the baby next me was a little darling and never cried the entire journey, except of course when I tried to talk to it, but I do have that effect on babies – Di just said ‘David, leave the baby alone’.

The look on the baby’s face!!!

Eventually we arrived in El Nido, the trip was a little squashed, okay a lot squashed, but it could have been worse – I thanked the baby for it’s quiet co-operation. The scenery on the journey is quite good as you follow the coastline and ocean for long periods and other periods are through the jungle. The roads are pretty straight and there are no steep inclines.

El Nido would be our home for the next two weeks.

Let the adventure continue.


  1. Renee Hassani

    I enjoy your reading blog! I was researching for my trip to Vietnam-Laos-Thailand and stumbled upon it and could not stop reading it, post after post!! I’m from Manila and I must tell you that the district you went to is no good. Chinatown is absolutely NOT the economic capital of Manila. Bonifacio Global City and Makati City boasts of skyscrapers and an exceptional nightlife scene in Asia! That is by far the only best thing I could recommend to my foreign friends in Manila. But anyway! Great choice on the 2 weeks stay in relaxing El Nido. I loved reading your adventures in Palawan (my favorite part is like, Callie from California who doesn’t like to go bi)
    Looking forward to living vicariously more through your travel tales! Enjoy and take care to the both of you. 🙂

    1. (Post author)

      Hi Renee, It was so nice reading your lovely comment and we are really happy that you are enjoying our blog. We hope it helps you on your travels. Safe travels 🙂

  2. Michelle Hartley

    Great Post Dave! I enjoyed reading about Manilla and it seems like we have done a similar thing to you.We found getting around China town a real challenge at times. I tried the train once from Chinatown in Manilla it was an experience in itself, jammed packed!Thanks for all the details about getting to Palawan.Enjoy! Have a great time!

    1. (Post author)

      Thanks Michelle 😀

  3. Nicole

    Hi Dave, St Augustine was the bishop of Hippo Regius (within modern-day Annaba, Algeria), located in Numidia (Roman province of Africa). Hence the Hippo. Happy Easter to you and Di

    1. (Post author)

      Thanks Nicole😀

  4. John Bains

    El Nido looks to be a beautiful place and we look forward to your next blogs. Yes, the baby does look worried!

    1. (Post author)

      Glad you enjoyed it 😀


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