A few years ago one of the better UK newspapers described Palawan, one of the 7,000-plus islands that make up the Philippines, as ‘the last frontier of travel’.
Of course, this meant that we had to visit; it seemed madness not to. We were in Thailand, wondering what we should do for Christmas
when Airasia (think budget airline but done in a way where the staff don’t appear to hate the customers) had a flash sale and offered up super-cheap flights over to Manila.
This was a first extended trip, the one where we thought we were going to train as diving instructors and had in fact planned the entire trip around that but, instead, decided a week before we were
due to leave that we should ‘just travel’ instead. So we ended up in Thailand without any real plan. We did have Lonely Planet’s ‘South East Asia on a Shoestring’ – so, we weren’t completely lost.
We, BTW, is now my husband and I. Back then the bigots were still winning, so he was basically nothing more than a travelling companion in the eyes of UK law.
After doing some fun things with Whale Sharks – legal things, I’m talking swimming with them, not making one into a huge camper van and driving it up and down the coast – we got a plane over to the
capital of Palawan, Puerta Princessa.
Two things stuck with me about that trip: the plane was so small that the in-flight meal was just thrown down from the front ‘heads-up’ style and, when we arrived, there was a brass band playing.
Yes, an actual brass band announced the arrival of each flight – they sadly didn’t take requests.
Our first experience of ‘the last frontier’ was probably when we noticed how many people had guns. They were mostly security guards, but most of the guards looked moments away from ‘going postal’ and
their guns were actually roughly sawn-off shotguns.
I remember wondering what could lead to a ‘Shoot’em in the head’ incident – would stealing a can of beans be enough?
To this day, Puerta Princessa is one of the few towns where we actually thought we should be inside after dark. If it’s changed now, can you let me know?
Needless to say, we left that town the very next day and headed to the other end of the island. It was a ten-hour drive over mud roads, where we periodically had to get out and push the ‘bus’ when it
got bogged down in the mud.
The seats were taken half by passengers and half by dried fish crates, the bus’s roof was not designed for a tall westerner and when not gagging from the stench of the fish I was cracking my head on
the metal roof as we bounced our way across the island.
Brass Band on Palawan – yes, I know right!
We were heading for a place called El Nido. It is a stunningly beautiful little town famous for having the nests that the world (mostly China), use for making birds’ nest soup.
It also has incredible white sandy beaches that can rival any the world over and passable scuba diving.
Other than the fact it is pretty, the main reason we’d gone there was so that Alex (my husband), could do his PADI Advanced Open Water.
When we arrived in El Nido, we found much more ‘Last Frontier’ stuff. There was no ATM, you needed to bring enough cash with you or go back ten hours to Puerto Princessa to find one. The most recent
high tide had washed away the beach on the main town and, on Christmas Eve, the highest tide of the year was due.
We arrived a couple of days before Christmas so that Alex could do his course, then we planned to relax and sit on a beach on the big day.
The other ‘Last Frontier’ thing we noticed was the electricity situation: they only had it for four hours a day. It came on at 6pm, at which point everyone rushed to get everything charged, to use
the one internet café and to worship the magic that was the lightbulb – but only for four hours.
We went diving after Alex passed his Advanced Open Water.
Then we went on a boat trip to see some pretty amazing beaches. One of them was the actual beach used in the film ‘The Beach’ – or at least that was the local rumour.
The day before Christmas Eve, we were walking along the road in front of the ten or so restaurants and shops that make up the main street. In one of the two non-local places that boasted about ‘being
organic’ (this was back when this was a really big deal, before everyone got in on the act), there was a small note in the window that read:
Web designer wanted, can exchange food for work, must be discrete – call inside and ask for Bella
Well, as a web designer who would never turn down free food, I of course went in to find Bella (name changed to protect the innocent, in this case me, mostly because I can’t remember the woman’s
Bella was easy to spot once we walked into the trendy food-type place. It wasn’t so much that she was milk-white skinned in a sea of local faces, it was more than she stood a foot taller than anyone
else in the store.
Bella strode over when she heard her name. She was an imposing looking lady in her late 50s who clearly took Yoga to extremes. The scraped back hair gave her face that fixed expression that you’d
generally associate with botox. The bulldog clip that was holding the white hair back was so big it made me wonder what would happen if it was released. Would her face simply fall to the floor
like a crumpled carrier bag?
‘Can I help you?’ – Bella asked, much too loud for the cute little eatery.
Amazing beach on Palawan
She had lived in Australia since a young age and in the Philippines for the last 25 years, but had been born in England. This left her with a peculiar accent: she had very proper enunciation and an
enthusiastic raise of tone at the end of sentences. Or, at least, this is how I heard it; I’m not great with accents. She was also very loud.
I’m easily intimidated (I am, you should see me try and go in a small shop), so I just mumbled something about building her a website. She bounced on her toes and invited us to lunch to talk it over.
Now, as I said earlier, I’m a fan of free food, I can even bear free food being served on a banana leaf. But when it’s the kind of food that looks the same going in as it will coming out and I have
to eat with my fingers – it’s more natural, I was told – I am a little out of my comfort zone.
Still, I picked at the food and even managed to get some of it in my mouth – it tasted as expected – and we chatted about the website.
This is the day before Christmas Eve remember and I had no intention of working until after Christmas but what happened next sucked me in.
Just off El Nido there is a rock formation that they call The Cathedral. You sail through it and, on the full moon, the light hits it in a special way that, we were told, was breath taking.
It turns out that the full moon was on Christmas Eve and I said we were going to get a local boatman out to see the display.
Bella gushed that we should do no such thing. She told us that she owned a boat and she also had a boat crew.
The thing that got me to work on Christmas Eve was the fact that she also owned an island! Yes, she had her own private island. And this was not just any old island; this was a place where rich
people came to detox and lose a ton of weight in a very short time. I think most of the weight got sucked out of them as she mentioned there was a regime of daily Colonic Irrigations.
The offer was, if I built her a website (nothing fancy, only one page) she would take us to The Cathedral, and then we could spend Christmas Eve on her island, have lunch there and be brought back
later that day.
The underground river – one of the main reasons people visit Palawan – made it to he 7th Wonder List
It sounded perfect. She said she had all the text for the website, the domain and all I had to do was just build a quick WordPress site. Easy. I asked more than once what the site was about but she
skilfully evaded answering and we left expecting her to explain more the next day.
Now, if you’re wondering how I managed to build her a site with only four hours of electricity a day, she had her own generator. At the time I imagined it was powered by a mix of her enthusiasm and
the leftovers from the Colonics, but I didn’t ask.
She wanted the website to be called ‘The Island Courtesan’ – she told me in a matter-of-fact way. Adding that she’d not had sex in 17 years because she needed to meet the right man. Yes, I know, she
was barking mad – the heat does that to you.
The text she’d written gave an extensive list of requirements: non-smoker (of course), in good shape (why not?), must eat 80% raw food – as I said, clearly barking.
I did as she asked, which was easy enough. What wasn’t easy was her constantly touching my and Alex’s arms and shoulders. And I don’t mean friendly touching, I mean pulling out a doll in court and
having to say ‘she touched me here and here’.
When I mentioned that it was really warm she yelled, ‘oh, don’t worry, take your shirts off, it’s nothing I haven’t seen before’.
If she’d seen me without my shirt she’d still have the scream lines around her mouth, so it was very much something she hadn’t seen before. We didn’t take our shirts off.
I built the site, she was happy with it and later that day she took us on her boat out to The Cathedral. Bella enthused about how Alex and I should go for a swim after seeing it as it was a
wonderfully protected cove.
Sabang on Palawan in the Philippines – the beach to ourselves for a day!
We did but, much to her disappointment, we didn’t swim naked as she suggested. I have to point out, she wasn’t lusting after us ‘cos we’re so lovely: she hadn’t had sex in 17 years so any man was
fair game – even the men-loving-men type.
The island was better than we could have imagined. It was the kind of thing that you’d expect to offer millionaire guests. The beach bungalow we stayed in made our place on the mainland look like an
Now, all this was great and all, but when we woke it was Christmas Day and I am from the north of England. To me this means, like many others, the day must contain excessive amounts of food. I
wanted so much food there’d be a risk of me falling into a coma if I pushed in one more wedge of chocolate orange.
Instead, we were served more slop on a banana leaf. When I questioned about it being Christmas Day and did she not fancy a bigger meal she said, ‘we don’t put much stock in food here.’
I had to leave.
We thanked Bella, wished her luck on her quest to find the perfect man and we were dropped back on the mainland. It was early evening by this point and the tide was coming in.
We found a restaurant and ordered up a mountain of food that we ate by candlelight – mostly in silence as we were trying to process the madness of the last couple of days (and to make sure that the
Island Courtesan didn’t hear us and swoop down to carry off one of us as her prize).
Questions? Why not ask them in the comments below or find me on Twitter or visit my Facebook
Page and let me know.