Nine years after the magic of Palawan conquered my love of turquoise seas and empty beaches I returned to the Philippines, this time Cebu. After a one night stop in hectic Dumaguete where the distinctive characteristics of the Philippines hit all my senses at once (tricycles, horns beeping, loud church sermons, fast food, being called maam…), I arrived on the quiet island of Siquijor.
From Kuala Lumpur I flew to Cebu with Air Asia, followed by a cheap and easy internal flight with Cebu Pacific (45minutes) to Dumaguete.
Hotel Escencia provided a basic room, fine for one night, nothing special for longer, I booked boat tickets with them, they convinced me it would be too busy to shop at the pier, this proved to be untrue, the hotel clearly wanted by booking fee. Even so, their fee was only a quid so, who cares?
The Ocean Jet fast boat from Dumaguete pier dropped me off, early morning at the Port of Siquijor. (At Dumaguete Pier I was transported immediately back in to the South-East Asian life of a tourist, where you get hassled by people wanting your business. Headphones on, I navigated security, the ticket office and the luggage section which was filled with really persistent porters with a smile on my face and ears silent to their nagging.)
A gorgeous second floor room, with en-suite and a large, furnished balcony awaited me at White Villas Resort; my room was spot on for a solo female, the second floor offered more privacy and felt much safer than having a balcony on the ground floor. Clean, well decorated, great shower and a really comfortable mattress meant that I was in for a luxurious and relaxing week.
The beach in front of White Villas was really poor for swimming. On first sight it looked absolutely gorgeous but the underwater sand was swamp like; if you’ve ever jumped out of a boat within mangroves you’ll know the feeling, awful. To enjoy a beach in walking distance from here, wander along the beach to the left, as far as you can go towards Apo Diver and you’ll find a much more comfortable beach.
Also the food at White Villas was pretty dire, bland and poorly cooked. This was disappointing because when you travel alone in the evening on a quiet, dark island, often your accommodation or the few walkable places nearby become your food home. I don’t scooter alone at night and I’m also not keen on taking a tricycle at night by myself; if I’m in an international, cosmopolitan city I’ll walk, train, taxi etc. at night alone however for some reason in quiet places without many tourists I just don’t do it, too uneasy. I’m sure solo travelling men do it just fine!.
Anyway, before I roll in to how fantastic everything was, I have to point out a huge, frustrating problem I had, it’s why I wanted to write this post.
As mentioned, nine years ago I ventured to the Philippines as part of a couple and absolutely loved it. This time I travelled alone and honestly my enjoyment of this beautiful island was tainted because of how I was treated.
Now, it was only a week on an island with few tourists but the way I was spoken to by men AND women makes me certain that I would not return to this lovely island alone and sadly this feeling would definitely impact future solo travel plans to the Philippines (even though I’m aware that travelling solo in other locations may very well be completely different).
It started when I was collected at the Siquijor Port.
‘It’s just you?’
‘Yes, it’s just me (I really hate the just).’
Then, when I checked in (female staff) this was their IMMEDIATE reaction,
‘It’s just you? Why are you alone? (Imagine a patronising, sad tone to these questions.) Do you not have a HUSBAND?’
I vomit silently in my mind at this backwards, antiquated question.
‘Why are you not with friends? Did your family not want to travel with you?’
Forget, the usual pleasantries that receptionists offer, it was straight into, let’s make you feel terrible about travelling alone (and yes I understand that they were not doing it on purpose, it was just what they understood to be unusual).
After a brief conversation where I scrambled to explain my travel choices (I’m annoyed that I even did this), the empowerment of arriving one, in a random holiday destination and two, by myself, completely disappeared. So I went about my day with an edge of sadness entirely brought on by these initial reactions.
Unfortunately this reaction to a solo travelling female happened every day of this trip, at every restaurant, cafe, roadside, waterfall, church (just there to take photos)…. you name it.
This following is taken from scribbles in my travel journal, written live during this adventure ‘too many annoying, awkward questions about travelling alone. It’s not wrong people! Why do they treat you like you’ve got a disease?! I’ve been clueless and now feel incredibly bad for all female, solo travellers having to put up with this shit!’
It. Drove. Me. Bonkers.
Yes, I know, it was just one week, maybe I was unlucky hmm.
Tricycles can take you everywhere on this island but for true independence and to save money a scooter is best (plus tricycle drivers pull the common trick of not having any change, when they actually do).
On a particularly bright, sunny morning I was so lost in the roadside tropical beauty of this island that I just didn’t stop, I scootered the whole thing! Honestly! You know when you get to a point and think, uhoh I can’t turn back, got to keep going. Quite the achievement (seriously scrubbed my face that night)!
Of course, any men or boys who drove scooters past or wandered along the road next to my trusty White Villas scooter always vocalised the obvious misogynistic reactions of a man seeing a woman alone.
Siquijor is a really attractive place (if you ignore the usual litter that frequents many Asian destinations), palm trees, unbelievably clear sea, white sand, unusual flowers, fabulous coral (I dived twice with Apo Divers and would recommend Siquijor for quiet, pretty sights including sea snakes and turtles) colourful churches, (one built in 1783!) a convent, even a series of waterfalls that could nearly rival Kuangsi Falls in Laos. Lots to fill a week (or fewer days if you plan to take in much more of Cebu as well). Regardless of its beauty and interesting, photogenic sights, the island will always fill my mind with irritation because of the patronising, sexist nature of many of its residents.
I must point out that I never felt unsafe, I knew that people didn’t mean any harm, it was their opinion, they were seeing the opposite of what they knew and recognised as normal. A solo travelling female was obscure, different.
After speaking to one of the friendly staff at White Villas, she explained that in their culture a woman should marry young and have children really by 20, they should also work and provide for their family, women here would very, very rarely deviate from this and if they did it wouldn’t be welcomed. She had never travelled beyond Cebu, so I can’t say if this is common in the rest of the Philippines. She was 22, unmarried and incredibly sad about this. We chatted about our contrasting cultures, fascinating but also it left me feeling sad, women here were stuck in the 1800s or maybe that’s the 1950s without independence and choices. Although, if they’re happy, does it matter?
Right, what to do on this island whether you’re alone or not…
Cambugahay Falls, Siquijor’s main site away from the sea; really busy but the further you wandered upstream, the less people around the better; fantastic, fresh, turquoise *of course ignoring the male gaze that followed my every movement*.
Napoli Cafe had by far the best, strongest coffee and all the varieties of coffee servings that you’d usually find on a cafe menu. Plus a very friendly, loud Italian owner who offered some interesting Filipino travel tips, much appreciated.
Coco Grove Resort had possibly the best, longest stretch of beach but as with most of the world’s most beautiful beaches, resorts eat them up, grrr. Top tip, go for lunch or just a drink and then quietly wander along the beach, put down your towel and remain for the rest of the day without bother.
Paliton Beach is another famous beach on the island, quite small but always empty when I visited, stunning sea, just what the Philippines is loved for.
The humongous church in Lazi, San Isidro Labrador Parish Church, and the convent which is opposite is definitely worth a trip, especially for people who have been in Asia a while and miss historical European buildings (that’ll be me then).
Go diving with Apo Divers! They have a friendly and approachable dive shop (I find this uncommon in the world of a casual diver, I’ll explain this more in another post). It was exhilarating to be back on a wobbly Filipino banker boat, there were hardly any other dive groups around and only two other divers spending the day underwater with me. Radiant, untouched coral, snakes, turtles, plenty of fish, two excellent dives were had here. It was the first time I had been diving by myself so this experience gave me a massive, empowered, confidence boost!
My absolute must-do was a surprising find. If you’re on Siquijor scooter to Ocean Front Beach Resort their beach front is gorgeous, really pretty and tranquil. This was the ONLY place were lovely staff didn’t open with, ‘why are you alone’, so they get extra points for that, I told them as well because I was overjoyed to not be questioned, at last! The food was fantastic (obviously chips came with most meals, seems to be common in the Philippines) and they served drinks to the sun loungers, wonderful.
Lots of people online and at White Villas recommended the beach and cliff jumping experience of Salagdoong. My fabulous, mini scooter got me there and I found a really busy, too busy in fact, beach(not that pretty) with cliffs for jumping so I didn’t join in. However, I wandered away from the crowds, to the left of the cliff jumping, through a massage zone and found an empty paved section right next to deep sea, I sat and swam there, before jumping back on my scooter.
Siquijor is the type of place I have always travelled to, not on the tourist radar, quiet, no real night life, incredibly, unspoilt beaches and natural wonders, this is what I want. Nevertheless, it’s time to consider if I still enjoy these destinations as a solo female traveller. If I’d been with a girlfriend or partner, the local reactions would have been different and I would have explored more food options into the evening. A trip alone to this island was far, far harder than the two week trek I completed alone in the Himalayas. Interesting and unexpected.
I’ll end with a scrawled line from my Siquijor travel journal (cannot confirm exactly how many San Miguels had been drunk before grabbing a pen…).
Don’t give up.
Maybe I’ll put this on my fridge.
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