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Stranger Than Paradise

Will the Philippine government’s ambitious plan to attract luxury tourism threaten the environmental wonders that have made the country one of the last unspoiled tropical destinations in Asia? Two islands—one pristine, the other overpopulated—sound a cautionary note.

ASK THE AVERAGE WESTERNER what he knows about the Philippines and the reply will likely touch on Imelda Marcos’s shoe collection, or Manny Pacquiao’s knock-out record, or the Bataan Death March, or other things that don’t necessarily scream “paradise.”

For this, I am grateful. Arcing down toward El Nido, 260 air miles southwest of Manila, I gaze upon spectrums of seawater rarely observed in nature—Scope mouthwash deepening to Edge Shave Gel—and, in my experience, never before observed without American accents and steel-drum tunes ringing in my ears. The breathless reports I’ve heard of Bacuit Bay’s gob-stopping natural beauty seem, if anything, to have under-hyped the vista passing beneath the plane.

Bacuit Bay, home to an archipelago of 45 islands bordering the South China Sea, occupies a place in the Filipino psychogeography like Alaska’s in the American imagination: an unspoiled national Eden that few citizens ever get around to visiting. The bay sits at the northernmost tip of Palawan, the Philippines’s most sparsely populated, westernmost province, which brands itself “the last frontier.” The 19-seat turbo-prop charter to the bay’s lone village, El Nido, is reportedly the most expensive domestic airfare in the Philippines. (An informal survey of my plane mates turns up zero Philippine passport holders and a predominance of Japanese and South Koreans.) But the view would seem to justify the ticket price: The bosky little ingots of land studding the bay seem to bear no trace of human settlement, and the blue-green tides are wholly unscarred by cruise ship or Jet Ski wakes.

The bay’s welcome lack of development is partly an effect of environmental progressivism (in 1998, the government declared northern Palawan a protected area) and partly an emblem of the country’s late-blooming tourism industry. Public perceptions, shaped by headline-grabbing earthquakes, typhoons and periodic kidnappings—mostly by Muslim extremists around the contested southern island of Mindanao—have helped chill leisure travelers’ enthusiasm for the island nation. And, until recently, its roadways, airports and hotels simply couldn’t support large numbers of visitors accustomed to first-world amenities. But in the hopes of winning a wedge of a market long dominated by Thailand and Bali, the Philippines has committed unprecedented sums to its infrastructure budgets—$9.6 billion in 2013—and undertaken an ambitious media campaign to help assuage its image problem.

The efforts appear to be bearing fruit. Fueled in part by the growing tourism industry, the nation’s GDP swelled by 7.1 percent in the third quarter of last year, Asia’s second-fastest growth rate, bested only by China. “There is no better time to be in the Philippines than now,” says Robbie Antonio, managing director of Century Properties, a Manila real еstatе firm whose array of luxury construction projects includes Trump Tower, Makati City. “In our industry, demand for real еstatе has never been higher.” In 2012, the Philippines received 4.3 million foreign visitors—more than twice its intake of travelers just a decade ago—inspiring a rash of media speculation that the nation’s beach towns may soon go the way of Acapulco. In places like the Philippine island of Boracay, the transformation is well under way, so I head first to Bacuit Bay, to check out a diminishing rarity: a self-proclaimed tropical paradise that contains no go-kart tracks or daiquiri stands or much of anything but wild animals, water and sand.

“As I climb off the boat, a pair of long-tailed macaques, whom I assume are on the payroll, rove the cliff face, sampling white flowers.”

If, like me, you are not categorically keen on Southeast Asian beach resorts, it is probably because you have been to Thailand’s Phuket or Krabi, where you sat on heel-hammered sands drinking a warm gin and tonic from a literal bucket, wishing you’d discovered the place before the invention of fire-spinning, Katy Perry and laser shows. But the Lagen Island Resort, where I fetch up after a 40-minute boat cruise, is not that sort of place. Situated on a remote and otherwise deserted island distinguished by serous limestone cliffs, Lagen has 50 private rooms, including a crescent of eight hip-roofed cottages poised on stilts in an oval of placid water that’s the color of molten Coke bottles. Admission to this world of ecofriendly ease—the resort has its own desalination and power plants, and wastewater-processing technology—does come at a comparative premium. Cabanas here range from $400 to $650 per night, a relative fortune in a land where clean and comfortable beachfront accommodations abound at a tenth or so the price. As I climb off the boat, a pair of long-tailed macaques, whom I assume are on the payroll, rove the cliff face, sampling white flowers. In the perfect absence of thundering house music, the call of a lone, coarse-throated bird thunders like a foghorn.

Under the unwalled reception pagoda, frozen towels and glasses of gelid melon puree are put into our hands. We are gently instructed to set our mobile devices to vibrate for the duration of our stay. We are shown the beach, the slate-tiled saltwater pool and the al fresco cocktail shanty—phenomena my fellow travelers quietly moan over and photograph with reverent diligence. The temptation is strong to take to a lounger and lapse into basking-iguana consciousness. Instead, I submit to the activities director’s recommendation to head out on a tour of Bacuit Bay’s astonishments.

My guide, a friendly and knowledgeable young man named Angelo Gustillo, ferries me across the bay to a small lagoon, known locally as “the small lagoon,” which you get to by kayaking through a narrow fissure in a limestone breaker. Here, I swim through a canyon filled with green water of such violent luminosity that it’s like breaststroking through a radioactive Midori cocktail. Green waverings play on the high gray stone. Plashings and gaspings of a sparse pack of astounded tourists echo off canyon walls. I suffer a vague despair that I am neither Brooke Shields nor 13 years old.

Gustillo takes me snorkeling in a coral grove, going so far as to summon a crowd of gorgeous fish by chumming the water with hacked-up bits of less gorgeous ones. I see clown fish being gleefully tickled by anemones. I see schools of Day-Glo creatures that look like they were designed by Wes Anderson. I hear the snicky-snacky sound of coral breakfasting. He takes me spelunking through a Neolithic cave that is both prettier and tidier than my house. He brings me to the summit of a little mountain to take in a panorama of the bay and, with any luck, to spot some of Palawan’s celebrity fauna: green sea turtles, dugongs, sharks, whale sharks and the world’s most adorable ungulate, the Chihuahua-size Philippine mouse deer. At this point, I’m so surfeited on natural spectacles, it’s faintly disappointing not to see a troupe of all these things executing Busby Berkeley maneuvers for my personal delectation.

Among Palawan’s deep trove of wildlife, the most precious to the local economy, Gustillo explains, is the swiftlet, a small darting bird whose nests, built largely of its own spittle, are the essential ingredient in bird’s nest soup. A swiftlet nest (nido in Spanish, hence El Nido’s name) sells for upward of 200 Philippine pesos per gram ($2,265 a pound). A few years back, Gustillo eked out a dangerous living retrieving the nests from crevices high in the cliff faces. “So many of my friends died doing that kind of work,” he says, explaining that nido hunters disdain safety harnesses. “That’s how it is with many Philippine people. They do what they have to live.” But in the name of social and ecological responsibility, Lagen’s resort manager tells me later, the El Nido Resorts have made a point of hiring nido hunters away from the cliffs and into careers less hazardous for the swiftlets and for the hunters themselves.

LATE IN THE AFTERNOON, I return to Lagen Island. I laze around my handsome cabin. I laze some more on my private bayside veranda, gnawing a mango of life-altering excellence. I watch silvery small-fry dance and play across the water’s surface. Then I reflect that they’re not dancing and playing at all. A bigger fish is down there trying to murder them. But such is the weird, solipsistic derangement that starts to takes hold when you’re in a place where the chief anxiety is the slowness with which the shadows grow on the shore-front chaises. When the light begins to fail, a staffer announces that the sun will soon be going down. My fellow guests and I get excited about the rotation of the planet as though it were an impromptu performance by Tom Jones. We board a sunset-watching vessel and stare at the big Clingstone peach in the western sky. The fiery lacuna the sun burns into my field of vision somehow feels like a valuable memento.

Sumptuous though Lagen Island is, it seems a poor relation compared to Pangulasian, westward across the bay. After a fire razed the property a few years back, Pangulasian underwent a ground-up restoration, completed in October 2012. The result is a property nearly unsettling in its opulence. Accommodations at Pangulasian range from $800 per night for a beachfront cabana, to $3,300 per night for an eight-person suite of villas equipped with a private infinity pool. During my visit, the staff is still making refinements. One of these is a plan to query guests in advance as to their music and fragrance preferences, and moments before arrival, to flood the cabana with, for example, gardenia and Metallica.

At sunset, I sit on a balcony with Pangulasian’s manager, Lei Policarpio, dining on sea bass and foie gras–whipped potatoes, watching the sun perform. I mention to Policarpio my strange new understanding of the sun—Sol the product, Mister Tom Jones.

She nods. “Yes, the sun is a product,” noting that the island’s east-west orientation treats the guest to two solar recitals per day. “The beach is a product, too.” Then she frowns, looking down on the glowing strand. In her opinion, the product could be handsomer. Too many bits of shell and coral litter the sand.

“You could have it sieved,” I suggest unseriously.

“We’re going to try with rakes,” but if the rakes don’t do the trick, says Policarpio, she will have the beach sieved.

IF BACUIT BAY FEELS like the Philippines’s best-kept travel secret, its worst-kept secret is the island of Boracay, in the region of Visayas, a 40-minute flight south from Manila. Seen from above, such a profusion of windsurfers and parasails mob the limeade-tone shallows that the island looks besieged by moths. The flourlike beaches of Boracay, a narrow oddment of land a brief boat ride from the mainland town of Caticlan, have drawn throngs of foreigners since the ’80s. Its years of hard use aren’t difficult to detect. Not many acres of this 10-square mile island remain unclaimed by hotels or houses and golf courses. The few remaining postage-stamp size wildernesses are staked with “for sale” signs. Boracay’s main attraction is the White Beach, a 2.5-mile stretch of bright sand along the island’s west coast. When I first arrive, I have some difficulty finding it. The beach, as it turns out, is hiding behind a long bulwark of commercial establishments, including but not limited to: the Obama Grill (slogan: “You want good food? Yes we can!”); a shooters bar inviting patrons to accept its “still standing after 15 [shots]” challenge; the Facebook Resort; a shopping mall; and an uncountable number of T-shirt vendors, massage touts and diving tour agencies.

Visiting Boracay after Palawan admittedly subjects the place to an unfair comparison. Still, I’m pleased that Palawan’s enviro-protected status has prevented people from erecting shooter bars on the hawksbill turtles’ nesting beds. Shouldering through the White Beach’s Times Square–density throngs, it’s hard to greet happily those elements of tourist culture that have already dimmed the appeal of places like Phuket: pedicurists plucking at your sleeves; Russian tourists dancing Gangnam-style at a beachfront club; restaurants lit with so much neon they look like rides at the state fair; Wilford Brimley lookalikes dining wordlessly with young Filipinas whom one can only optimistically suppose are mail-order brides.

According to press reports, the island is beginning to suffer serious ill-effects of its own popularity. The relentless foot traffic notwithstanding, hotels and seawalls built too close to the beach are contributing to the quickening erosion of Boracay’s beaches. In recent years, boat anchors and heedless divers have helped kill off much of the surrounding hard coral. Leakage from below-code septic systems has been known to taint the beach sands. Among Boracay’s service-sector workers, nervous rumors circulate that the environmental authorities plan to shutter the island for a season or two to let its ecosystem convalesce.

Down by D Mall, the White Beach’s retail epicenter, I pause to chat with boat tour operators Rene Plemones and Reynald Bernardo, who fret that the island and their livelihood may fall victim to its own success. “The development is a problem here in Boracay,” Plemones says. “There are so many tourists, and so many hotels doing violations to the environment. How long will the tourists want to come here? We don’t know.”

An official I queried at the Philippines Department of Tourism claimed not to have heard of any plans to close the island, but the rumor is regrettably familiar to Plemones and Bernardo. “Maybe it’s going to happen,” says Bernardo. But even a rest-cure isn’t likely to restore Boracay to its former preeminence, he says. “Boracay used to be number one, but now number one is Palawan. It’s the best island because of the nature. Boracay cannot be Palawan.”

Fair enough. But even here on Boracay, I ask, is there maybe someplace to, you know, dodge the tourists and get off the beaten track? Plemones muses, shakes his head. “I don’t know about something like that.”

But, the White Beach is not devoid of appeal. And at mealtimes, it’s well worth wending your way to the fish market, or talipapa, at the center of the labyrinthine D Mall. Here, for a modest sum, you can snag a fresh-caught fish or a still-gesticulating crab, which you then take to one of the half-dozen or so “cooking service” restaurants surrounding the market. A capable chef will flay and cook your catch to order. Eating your weight at the talipapa plaza is a wise thing to do.

One afternoon, I ask my guide, a young man named Yeng, if he might help me track down some less tourist-friendly fare. He gives me an uncertain look. “Have you eaten balut?” Balut, for reasons that soon become clear, is a dish whose sale and consumption are forbidden on the White Beach. We head inland, and soon come across a plywood shelter full of local guys watching television, one of whom has a crate of it.

“Shouldering through the White Beach’s Times Square—density throngs, it’s hard to greet happily those elements of tourist culture that have already dimmed the appeal of places like Phuket.”

Balut is an unborn duckling scalded in its shell, apparently, before hatching. By way of instruction, Yeng eats one first. He peels the shell, douses the occupant with vinegar and knocks it back, unchewed, like an oyster shot. My turn. A tittering mob gathers. I peel my egg and see a beak, an eye and some matted black down. Steady on, down the hatch. Okay, a couple of problems: First of all, the notion of swallowing something with such an obvious face does not inspire my throat to open for business; second, “duckling” seriously understates the creature’s weight class. Lodged halfway down my gullet, the thing feels like a condor. A boa constrictor would have a hard time managing.

About halfway past my tonsils, the bird makes a break for it and flies toward the light and into my palm. I give it an unceremonious burial behind the television shack. For the better part of a week, I will feel its ghost impression on my uvula, but it’s hard to regret any experience that gives a dozen rubbernecking strangers the gift of helpless, tearful laughter.

My last full day on the island, I am still hung up on the idea of finding a spot less traveled by my fellow tourists. In my guidebook, I find mention of a local attraction that seems like it might be underattended: a bat cave near Ilig-Iligan Beach, on Boracay’s less-populous eastern shore. Even Yeng has never ventured there, which seems a good sign. He arranges for us to double (or, more accurately, triple) helmetless on a stranger’s wimpy-looking scooter. We rocket terrifyingly through traffic, swinging away from the hotel strip, through a simple village where the houses are sheet-metal shelters. The paving peters out, and the road dead-ends at a band of green ocean.

Yeng and I climb through a fence of rusted barbed wire, down to a beach of brilliant white, thrillingly free of humanity. At the north end, Yeng finds a pair of barefoot kids in a cabin enclosed by a driftwood fence. They’re maybe eight and ten years old, but they know about the bat cave and agree to take us there. They lead us up an eroded bank, past a couple of “No Trespassing” signs, through a dense patch of woods to a forbidding hole in the ground. It is dusk, and my plan is to hang around by the mouth of the cave until the bats burst forth in a huge photogenic plume, but the children go in. I follow, down and down over guano-slicked rocks, the descent getting scarier and less hygienic by the instant. I try to tell the kids that I’ve gone deep enough, that really, I’m just waiting for the bats to fly out, you know, to perform, like Mister Tom Jones.

“No,” one of the boys says.

“What? They don’t fly out at sunset? All bats fly out at sunset.”

“No,” he says cryptically.

The unseen bats are shrieking, evidently enraged at the intrusion. They howl and wheel but stay hidden in the dark. The light at the cave’s mouth begins to fail. My guide is right. These creatures, who’ve presumably been here since before the arrival of the first tourist boat, have no intention of putting on a show. I respectfully withdraw, climbing up into the twilight, down to the empty beach, where I wash my hands in the sea.

Source: The Wall Street Journal Asia | March 15, 2013


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