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It was November when I landed in Davao, the unofficial headquarters of Southern Philippines. Filipinos start celebrating Christmas at the onset of the ‘ber’ months. The city had been decked since September. I could only imagine what would happen when the final ‘ber’ month, December, would open its lid. My jaw dropped at the sights of giant, illuminated snowflakes and tall Christmas trees ablaze with decorations. Only, the Christmas festivities seemed to turn on their head where weather was concerned. It was 33 degrees Celsius and a pair of shorts was the only thing on my mind. That, and the sales.
Philippines is a shopping heaven for Indian travellers. Christmas sales aside, this is one of the few countries where the currency conversion is not loaded against Indian tourists. A beacon of commercialisation that follows you everywhere is SM Supermalls; the stores are sprinkled all over the country. It was from the makers of this chain that former first lady Imelda Marcos ordered hundreds of shoes. It’s different that she had to ditch about 1,200 pairs when fleeing with her husband after an uprising. Done with shopping for budget clothes, shoes, accessories and Durian-shaped magnets on Day One itself, I couldn’t wait to hit the water.
Rounding up budget activities, accommodations and food pit stops in Philippines is easy. Even the value-airlines that hop from one island to another don’t burn a hole in the pocket and the rough and ready image of the country has kept the over-priced tourist traps at bay.
The long stretch of beaches on Samal Islands, a kilometre off Davao city, is the ideal springboard to water activities. The water here is perfect for snorkeling and diving. We were a group of six, so hiring a boat for the day seemed prudent. Fastened into snug orange life jackets, we dangled our legs to catch the spray of the wake and kept an ear for what the captain of the ship, Sherwin, was saying. He must have been one for superlatives, as outrageous statistics came flying at us.
“Davao is the largest city in the world.” We rolled our eyes. “It’s the seventh tallest mountain on earth, “ he said, pointing at Mt. Apo that loomed majestically over the city. “Samal Islands are bigger than Singapore,” he added, refusing to give up.
When we looked back with furrowed brows to counter his incredulous claims, he winked. Filipinos are an ever-smiling, ever-jesting bunch. Even the immigration officer had peeked from under the small arched window despite the large glass in front, and offered an exuberant welcome. “Helloooo! Have fun in Philippines!”
A low hum of life could be heard long before we reached Monfort Bat Sanctuary on Samal Island, a short stop before we dipped into the sea. We walked to the five cave openings, where more than 2 million bats hung upside down — squirming, scuttling, wrapping their thin film of wings on their tummies or over bat babies. This mega bat city is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest single colony of this kind in the world. With the trademark Filipino smile, our guide told us about the importance of bat feces, their routine and contribution to the ecological balance. I only wished we had caught the Circadian flight at 5.30 pm when the bats fly out in a tornado shape to search for food at night. Slack-jawed with wonderment, we had to be reminded of less creepy creatures that awaited below the surface of water.
Back at the boat, the helpers at the boat were busy cleaning fish and chopping veggies. A post snorkeling picnic at sea seemed like the perfect way to stretch the buck.
Suspended mid-ocean, it was time for us to get into snorkeling gear. Dressed for the part, snorkel pipes brandished in air, we jumped from the boat and clutched onto orange tyre shaped buoys. Many panic-stricken gasps and several “thumbs down” to the captain later, we finally arrived at some sort of harmony with the soft waves and opened our eyes to a different world. Snorkeling is Samal’s biggest draw — vast coral cities, fish patrols gliding swiftly like a well-disciplined platoon and delicate sponges of every shape and colour wobbled with the water. We had heard that Boracay and Cebu were the best diving sites of the archipelago, but with the wealth of fish here, we were satisfied. Plus it was much cheaper.
With the classic Philippines public transportation, Jeepneys, materialising from nowhere, crossing the road is a task in Davao. A cross between a jeep and van, they are the remnants of World War II, when American soldiers started leaving their Jeeps before departing. We jumped into one the next day to reach the Bankerohan Market to taste local fruits and a buffet of puto bumbong (sticky rice with butter), bibingka (coconut cake), pancit (noodle dish) and adobo (pork or chicken curry) from the stalls. What trumped the list was an unassuming shanty, a little away from the main market, called Thrunk’s Place. Run by Ermelita, the hole-in-the-wall restaurant is a top “comfort food” pick of President Duterte. She laid out the pinakbet, gizzard, pancit and pork rib soup with taro for us — what the President liked. And it cost us just Php 30.
Convinced that Davao, with its odd blend of urban sprawl and rustic playground, delivers more than just the beaches, I knew that this was going to be my top budget recommendation to friends.