Undiscovered Siargao Island – Surf, Singing, and Scary
Siargao (Shar Gaw) Island is a beautiful destination for tourists who like to go out of the way, explore remote places, and enjoy surfing / kitesurfing
South East Asia is an incredibly popular tourist destination, and I often hear from people about their beach party adventures to the likes of Thailand and Bali. While still behind their bigger neighbors, the Philippines is starting to receive similar tourist interest, especially from Americans, as English is one of the country’s two official languages. Boracay and the resorts at Cebu are quickly becoming as well known as Phuket and Koh Phangan.
I have always been fascinated by the Philippines, its culture and people, so it was not difficult to choose it for my December sun holiday destination. However, I was conscious that while sun, surf and snorkeling were all on my list of things to do, I would not learn much about local culture by staying at one of these resort destinations designed specifically for tourists. So after some research, I chose Siargao as my Philippines destination.
Siargao is a pretty remote island located in the southeast corner of the country. The 169 square mile island has everything you need for a summer holiday including white sandy beaches with great waves for surfing, a succession of coral reefs for diving, and large mangrove forest reserves. Despite this, the area is relatively underdeveloped when it comes to tourism, with only a few hotels on the island. It is a great place to encounter the local, rural population.
To get to Siargao you need to take a direct flight from Cebu, which only runs once a day and is often canceled due to bad weather in the rainy season, which runs from December to March. The other option is to get a plane from Manila to nearby Surigao, and then take a ferry across, which is what most of the locals use to connect with the rest of the Philippines. I myself took a flight from Cebu, which was not canceled, though I was not so lucky with my return journey.
phiAs I passed through customs at Cebu airport I remember the friendly greeting that I received from the customs official. I always think that this is a good indicator of what to expect while in a country, and I was not disappointed. Almost all of the Filipinos that I met throughout my journey were friendly and keen to chat. The taxi driver who picked me up at the airport was no exception. He was very inquisitive about me and what I planned to do while on the island, and full of advice to help me make the most of my trip.
I stayed at a wonderful surf spot called Cloud 9, yes after the candy bar, in the township of General Luna. The area is well-known among surfers for its hollow tube tunnel waves, and I was keen to get out on them as much as possible while staying on the island.
I did find that Filipino culture seemed to have just a bit more joy to it than you encounter in many places. I spent a lot of time wondering why this might be, besides living in an island paradise. Speaking to people, it seemed like they simply had a philosophy of not taking life too seriously, and being happy with what they had, rather than always striving for more, an American mindset that seems to leave many feeling unsatisfied.
Joking is also a key part of the culture, something that I thoroughly embraced while I was there. Though be prepared to get as good as you give, they won’t go easy on you just because you are a tourist. Singing and dancing also seem to be fundamental to the Filipino way of life, and I am no longer surprised that most of the performers that you encounter across South East Asia and Filipino.
Everywhere I went there was live music. At my favorite local restaurant, music played continuously throughout the day. On the beach at night, I found locals often entertained themselves by singing together, with some pretty impressive voices. A shame that the same could not be said of my new Irish friend who tried to join in – don’t give up your day job Fergel.
Everywhere on the island there are discos, even in remote villages which look too small to have much going on after dark. These discos are usually packed with Filipino teenagers dancing collective choreographed routines to American hip-hop classics. And Filipinos seem to love American culture, probably as a hangover of the 50-year American occupation of the islands that only ended in 1946. Alongside the music, this was particularly noticeable in the Filipino love of basketball. Everywhere I went on the island I found pickup games, which I was welcome to join in on. All the players wore the jerseys of their favourite American teams.
As well as enjoying the surfing and snorkeling around General Luna, one day I decided to head north to experience the Magpupungko Pools, which I was told were a must-see. The journey there was not easy. I headed out on a motorbike that I rented on the island, and was in a bit of trouble when a serious storm hit. I was fortunate that a nice lady offered me asylum in her home while the rain passed, which also gave me the opportunity to learn about her and her life. She lives on a small rice farm where she also raises chickens and pigs and lives with her daughter, who was home from college for the holidays. She too seemed to have that carefree and joyous air that characterizes many Filipinos.
I have to say that I knew very little about Filipino cuisine before embarking on this adventure. I had only eaten in a Filipino restaurant once, and with hindsight, I think much of their menu had been anglicized for the benefit of the patrons. On Siargao I discovered the sumptuous local cuisine, of which mango is a definitive feature. Some of my favorite dishes included:
- Kinilaw, a spicy fishbowl with fresh mango and cucumber.
- Pinoy Lechon, a pig roasted with mango in the mouth which we ate on New Year’s Eve.
- Chicken or Pork Tocino, meat glazed in a sweet mango sauce, served with fresh mango on the side.
- Sinigang Soup, slow-cooked with loads of fresh veggies in broth.
- Paksiw na Pata, pork, chicken or fish cooked in a clay pot with mango, of course.
- Chicken Adobo, a chicken dish with mango.
- Grilled Fish, done simply by putting a fresh fish on the barbeque with just a little salt.
- Balut Egg, which is cooked when the embryo is half-developed. I have to admit that this was a difficult one to love.
- Breakfast Burritos, always with mango included, of course.
- Coconut Bread, resulting in a cake that is not too sweet.
- Mango Float, a frozen dessert made from mango and condensed milk between two graham crackers.
Another food highlight was diving and snorkeling for sea urchin, which the locals eat both raw and barbecued. The urchin cluster close to the coast where there is quite a bit of vegetation and coral, and I was taught how to pick the right ones. The key is to look for those with smooth, colorful surfaces, and not the ones with big, black horns.
While I didn’t have any problems arriving on the island, my return journey was not so smooth. I had initially booked five days on the island, but my trip was extended by another five days by the arrival of an unexpected typhoon.
I was surprised by the lack of warning about the typhoon, especially considering how serious the storm was. I say serious, but apparently, the typhoon was only number one on the scale, so around 40 to 60 kph, and they get much, much worse. But it felt pretty serious while I was in the middle of it. It gave me a new perspective on how small villages get wiped out when these storms hit without warning.
News of the typhoon spread by word of mouth, and I was told that it was first identified by surfers who could see the storm evolving into something more serious. I was very surprised that there was not satellite technology in the areas specifically looking out for this kind of phenomenon. It did leave me wondering if new technology, such as drones, might help alleviate the situation in the future. I suppose only time will tell.
Anyway, my flight was canceled, and I found myself staying another five days on the island. In the end I actually found it quite therapeutic to be forced to stay in place and just enjoy myself without a plan, a list of must-see and must-do things, or the need to rush off to the next thing. It was enjoyable to just stay in one place, chat with the locals, try and pick up some of the incredible waves brought in by the storm, and work on my basketball game. It also meant spending New Year’s Eve on the island, eating a roast pig and just enjoying the festivities with my new friends.
When I was finally able to leave, I spent a night out in Boracay before heading home on my pre-booked flight. Boracay reminded me of Miami Beach, and I’m sure New Year’s Eve there would have been a lot of fun, but I have absolutely no regrets about the ten days I spent on Siargao.