12 March 2019
To the Philippines
I’ve been travelling from the UK to the Philippines about once a year since 1995, and always taken a two-hop flight to Manila after the original PAL direct route closed (I see that they offer it again now). I used BA once, because I had some air miles, but their prices haven’t impressed me since. Most frequently I’ve used Emirates or Cathay Pacific and found both to be good. A couple of hours in the Hong Kong terminal is pleasant enough, and on occasion a day or two stop-over is interesting if you’re new to the place. Singapore can also be an invitingly clean and orderly contrast to Manila if you want to split the journey, and an Air Asia special offer once lured me to Kuala Lumpur for a very entertaining couple of days.
Qatar stopping in Doha for an un-advertised and unapologetic 24 hours was a very unpleasant experience, and I’m not tempted to try them ever again, even if I’m told they’ve reformed.
The non-stop PAL flight is 12 hrs 50 mins flying east, 14 hrs 20 mins returning, whilst stopping in Hong Kong with Cathay will add a couple of hours to each leg.
Cathay Pacific also flies London to Clark International, which may be of interest if you’re thinking of flying to San Vicente in Palawan rather than Puerto Princessa, and you’re not tempted by the engaging and energetic, but overcrowded and air-polluted, Manila.
Although Cebu Pacific offers no-frills trips I have always found them to be adequate and certainly value for money. I may be interested in their flights from London, or currently as a combination with Cathay via HK to Clark International.
Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) has four terminals:
Terminal 1: This terminal currently serves international carriers operating in Manila, except for All Nippon Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta Air Lines, Emirates, KLM, and Singapore Airlines. It also serves Philippine Airlines flights to and from the Middle East, except Dubai flights.
Terminal 2: This services Philippine Airlines and PAL Express flights.
Terminal 3: This was originally built to operate with domestic flights, mainly Cebu Pacific and PAL. Additionally it now hosts some international carriers such as All Nippon Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta Air Lines, Emirates, KLM, and Singapore Airlines.
Terminal 4: This is the old domestic terminal an d is still in use for a few internal flights.
There is a free bus operating between terminals, although I have not used it.
If you fly into Manila the obvious choice is to route out to Puerto Princessa, which may mean a change of terminal. After the exhausting long-haul flight I choose to overnight in a mid-price hotel near Greenbelt Malls in Makati. It’s not far from the terminals (important as traffic can be chaotic) and there are plenty of restaurants and a very clean, safe and cosmopolitan neighbourhood. It’s a gentler way to start acclimatising to the tropical heat and jet lag.
Orchids in the Park in the Manila Greenbelt Mall area
Taxis can be a rip-off, but there is an official system which involves going to a little kiosk outside international arrivals and pre-paying the standard fare (Php 200-300) which is very reasonable for a trip of 20 minutes or an hour depending on traffic and where in the city you’re headed. If you do not pre-pay then make sure the meter in your taxi is turned on. Also some drivers may claim that they cannot change larger denomination currency. Either take a card from your driver or get the hotel to arrange the return to the domestic terminal. I sometimes have a lot of baggage, so I have to make sure the hotel books a large taxi. I know people successfully use Grab, and Uber should be okay.
The flight from Manila to Puerto Princessa flies over Pagdanan Bay, so keep a look-out on the right for a view of the islands from above.
There is only a small terminal in Puerto Princessa, which is quite close to the city centre, so a couple of people with little luggage can take a tricycle (a sort of motorbike rickshaw) for a few tens of pesos. If you have booked a hotel then they may arrange to collect you from the airport, useful if you have lots of bags as you’ll need a taxi anyway. It is possible to get a van directly from the airport to Puerto Princessa, the main carriers regularly pick up there.
I have not flown into Clark International, but I am now tempted as it links directly to San Vicente and so bypasses Puerto Princessa, saving at least a few hours on the roads in Palawan. If you have flown into Manila then getting to Clark would negate that advantage.
Puerto Princessa City
Immaculate Conception Cathedral, Puerto Princessa, dating from 1872.
As there is little in the way of commerce in Port Barton I invariably spend at least one night in Puerto Princessa to pick up a few things. It’s a busy little city, much cleaner and better organised than most in the Philippines, and now has some modern malls and other facilities. I like the city – it is Asian but it is understandable, although the noise and fumes from the tricycles are more than you’d expect from their size. This may be a good place to pick up a cheap phone or a local sim (Smart or Globe – both serve Port Barton but one may be preferable if you are not actually in the town). The supermarkets can provide chocolate bars or ground coffee or bottles of wine, which you may find expensive or unavailable in Port Barton, which really is a sleepy little outpost. You may need to buy sunblock or mozzie repellant, or a snorkel and mask, or reef shoes – this is the last place you may find them.
You will find some jeepneys operating in Puerto Princessa, and they’re cheaper than tricycles, but you need to know that they are going the way you want.
For short trips the tricycles are easier than jeepneys for the visitor and not expensive.
Ask the fare before you get on.
The local fruit stalls (e.g. roadside by the Capitol) are a good place to pick up a star apple or papaya, and mangoes; do not take mangoes on the trip to Port Barton as there are check-points to enforce a quarantine and prevent the spread of disease northwards. You can usually find fruit in Port Barton for a little higher price and with less variety.
To Port Barton
The really adventurous may hire a motorbike and drive themselves to Port Barton. Most people will use the regular van services; the regular bus is cheaper and less comfortable over a longer journey time. A bigger group may choose to hire a private van and can control the air-conditioning and choose their seating arrangements, but this could cost you nearly Php 7000 one way if you book through a tour company from overseas (Recaro Transport advertise Php 4800, Lexxus Php 4500).
If you haven’t taken transport straight from the airport (which is more expensive) then you’ll need to get to the San Jose terminal to find the regular van services, about 15 minutes and Php 120 from town. (Private hires will of course come to you.) Best to book a seat first. The El Nido services do not go to Port Barton so don’t be led onto the wrong bus by a tout, you’ll end up at a junction still over half an hour from Port Barton.
I have found some drivers terrifyingly fast, perhaps not as bad as Rome, but whilst Roman roads are notoriously straight the Palawan route has some tortuous sections, especially over the mountains in that last half an hour. Motion sickness can be a problem, particularly for the back seat passengers. That said, I usually find the trip reasonably entertaining, and the landscapes suitably exotic.
The 3 hour trip will usually include a rest stop of about 15 minutes. All the vans are air-conditioned, though leg space is constrained. Big bags will be inaccessible whilst travelling, so put the water bottles and munchies somewhere close. I’ve never found the camera useful on this stretch as the van windows are only semi-transparent and the speed is not photo-friendly.
Recaro Transport vans depart daily from the San Jose terminal at 7.30am, 9am, 11am, 1pm, 2pm, 4pm, and 6pm. Lexxus vans leave at 7.30am, 9.30am and 2.30pm with the last van departing at 5 pm. SBE vans leave for Port Barton at 8am, 11.30 am, 1.30 pm, and 4pm. Tickets cost anywhere between Php 400 and Php550.
Vans will often pick up people from hotels, or at the airport (Php 500). The timetable is more guidance than prediction.
Recaro Transport booking number:
+63 909 351 3037 (Smart)
+63 905 485 8597 (Globe)
Lexxus phone numbers:
+63 917 686 1118 (Globe)
+63 920 957 1025 (Smart)
There is one SBE bus per day from PP to Port Barton 8.45 am, but be at the terminal at least half an hour prior to its scheduled departure. It is not air-conditioned. It can get you to Port Barton in around 4 hours for Php 250.
I’m not sure these still operate, but they may be the authentic way to travel – colourful, bumpy, dusty, slow (6 hours) and for the same fare as the bus. One European passenger I met took them regularly but admitted always sitting near the exit so that he could jump out if / when the brakes failed.
I have not yet used the new international airport in San Vicente, accessible via Clark International, but if it fits your needs then getting from San Vicente to Port Barton is a pleasant boat trip of perhaps 45 minutes most days, and it is very convenient for some island resorts. San Vicente via Roxas to Port Barton is a winding road, but much closer than Puerto Princessa.
My first trip to Port Barton was by small boat, hired privately from Sabang, which is a reasonable journey from Puerto Princessa. Very early in the day this can be a pleasant voyage up the coast; my late in the day trip encountered heavy seas and was terrifying. I have since done the journey from Macarascas (which is on that same road before you get to Sabang) by regular boat, and that was longer but a little more comfortable, mainly because the boat was bigger. I still got sea-sick, and only chose that route because a bridge on the main road had been washed away in floods.