Bog! Rushing through the wet road, the van was throwing the sleepy passengers left and right the cramped vehicle. It was only a few hours past the dawn of light, still early in my head but the driver must have thought otherwise.

We were on our way to Rio Tuba, a barangay in south Palawan known for mining and where sweet crocodiles hangout. This will be our jump off point going to Bugsuk in Balabac group of islands, a few kisses north of Sabah. Loaded with excitement and a bottomless supply of bug sprays, we boarded a boat docked in the brown waters (who knows what’s in there) of the rustic Rio Tuba port. But of course it’s boring if I only say that paradise is on the other side of the sea and we were sunbathing the whole time. Because this Balabac story is one helluva rollercoaster ride.

South Palawan

The coast guard

“He’s scratching his head. The body language. Watch the body language.”

The guide was walking towards the boat when everyone’s eager smile suddenly turned to awkward staring, watching every thrust of his legs and twitching of his nose. A few moments ago he was talking to the coast guard who was busy taking photos of the group from afar.

“The coast guard did not allow us to sail because of the bad weather”

It wasn’t sunny but it wasn’t raining anymore so this so called “bad weather” will be a topic for the corner room table.

Is this it? Is this the end of the trip?

The backdoor

We went to another port an hour away from Rio Tuba. A “backdoor” port on the edge of Palawan with no coast guard to stop us and interestingly have stores that sell Malaysian products. The guide said the boat will meet us there, cutting the sail by an hour. Ah yes! I thought. Until we found out we had to walk a kilometer in a dirt road in the middle of the forest while weirdly being followed by eyes and occasionally hearing a unified yelp when one of us gets stuck in the mud. Yah we were some sort of entertainment there.

Road to Buliluyan port
Start walk to port #2 from here
Buliluyan port
Even the kids can’t help but watch the strangers

The sail to Bugsuk was perfect. The sun even came out in the final hour. But the best part is landing my feet in the soft cream sand after a long day of travel. Though it was not a dreamy island (for me that is) having been inhabited by humans, crocodiles, and the hyper bugs, I must say Bugsuk’s sand and water is a good one. For sure a sight to catch under a summer sun. Pity though that we only stayed less than a day.

Balabac

The bad news

“Guys, we got news that a British backpacker has been kidnapped (ASG) in Balabac island yesterday so change of plan”

Balabac island is a good 4 hours away from Bugsuk island but since it has been known that the terror group is lurking the area and we have been very visible in the south as of late (Palawan south don’t get much tourists like the north and we were walking back and forth the streets), we decided not to spend another night in Bugsuk following the next day’s island hopping.

For a moment there I got wee bit scared. What happens when suddenly uninvited boats come in the darkness of the night and somebody knocks on my beach-side tent! Ha too much movies I know.

“Night swimming!”

I guess it pays that I was with experienced travelers. After dinner and a good discussion of our situation, positive air came back and we were again in high spirits.  My unrest quickly turned to twilight shivering and laughter for the rest of the night even though the crocodile-infested swamp was just a few kilometers on the right.

The fall

“Plak bloob bloob”

“Don’t panic! Don’t panic!”

Four long hours of boat travel, we were back in Rio Tuba. It was already dark and the port was as still as a painting when suddenly somebody fell into the water. Everybody’s jaw dropped. Wide-eyed and speechless. Good thing the crocs were not around though. But now everyone’s out of their houses, giggling at the blunder on their dock.

Drugs in the island

Not far from the port we decided to have our dinner. Little did we know it wasn’t just food on the table but more shocking tales of where we just came from. Apparently Bugsuk island is not your ordinary island. It is also a passing to bandits and a mill for drugs. I couldn’t tell for sure the truth on these stories but if the explorer in us decided to venture deep into the island maybe, just maybe, we’ll see what we’re NOT suppose to see (hey that’s a movie!). I’m just glad nothing happened and we are all fine.

Balabac

The car accident

“Baagg”

“We hit something!”

Nestled in our seats and already falling asleep, we met a road accident. A motorcycle carrying three (drunk) passengers erupted in a corner and caught our speeding ride. Two of the motorcycle’s bloody passengers were rushed to a help (not sure if there’s a hospital in town) while our van’s windshield took the worst impact on our side. Everything happened so fast, locals started coming in.

“Where’s the driver?”

He was nowhere to be found. Did he ran? Did he leave us there? A place where we are the strangers in a small town. Suddenly a guy from the shuttle company came to our window and said the driver is with him – HIDING. I didn’t know how to react. If the driver was hiding then it must be a bad place to be standing in the dead of the night.

Moments when your defenses will no doubt automatically put up. Protecting. Surviving.

This is the story of our journey. The journey that we thought will be ordinary but instead gave us something like a script from a movie.

For a full account of this trip, check out my friend’s post here.

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To reach Balabac group of islands, fly to Puerto Princesa and take a public bus or van going to Rio Tuba. From Rio Tuba take a boat going to the islands.

Candaraman island

The islands in Balabac group are mostly (if not all) privately owned. Permission has to be secured in order to land and wander. Compared to the north though, I felt the south Palawan islands are somewhat less dramatic when it comes to front yard showing. But what’s apparent is that the waters are clear. Radiant deep blue and glowing greens. Oh and in some areas the corals are better than El Nido – they are alive!

candaraman
Photo by D. Mendoza

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The events here are based on my recent trip to Balabac. And although I have read two other blogs (from Akrosdayunibers and Lakwatsero) with a more easy experience, I am not comfortable at the moment to recommend a visit there considering the threats. Give it time then maybe. After all they say Onuk island is divine.