Going Underground

Perhaps what we’ll remember most about Sabang is how loud it is at night. Don’t expect a peaceful, sleeping by the sea in a quiet little town night of sleep, expect the worst night of sleep you’ve ever had. Snippets of sounds heard at night at Dab Dab Resort: near continuous child screams as the Ferris wheel is turned on for a few hours one night, what we sadly learned after the fact was the sound of a rat chewing through our snack supply and Alan’s iPhone headphones, and a sound that can only be described as a monkey performing exorcism on a cat. But I think by now the two of us, along with anyone who has ever done a Lao hill tribe trek, an overnight at an Iban longhouse or stayed at Dab Dab Resort in Sabang, can officially agree that roosters are the single most annoying animal on the planet. If we can genetically modify our chickens to make them fat and delicious and subsist on corn, can we not genetically modify them so they at least only crow at appropriate hours of the day and night??

Anyway, the quality of sleep is not what lures tourists to Sabang. What draws them in, almost exclusively, is the “natural wonder of the world,” the Underground River. It sounds a little cheesy, sure, almost like a ride designed for 11 year olds at Disneyland, but it’s pretty sweet. It’s a river that runs from the beach through a cave and on which you can boat around for a bit, wearing hardhats to protect you from bat poo and shining lights around to see the array of Jesus, Joseph and Mary shaped stalagmites and stalactites throughout the cave. Like any good Catholic underground river, the natural rock formations in this one took on religious look-alike shapes. It’s kind of crazy, actually, it’s like a museum of stuff that people found Jesus’ face in, all made by rocks and placed in a cave that you visit via boat. I think we even saw that Jesus shaped Cheez-it.

The 20-minute bangka ride from town to the Underground River park entrance is pretty beautiful, as well. The shoreline is flanked by some gorgeous karsts and the mountains in the background are quite spectacular. That is one thing we hadn’t anticipated contributing to the beauty of this area, but the mountainous backdrop to the sea view is not too shabby.   Arriving at the beach to visit the river reminded us of arriving at Bako National Park in Borneo.

There was also a bit of wildlife sighting to be done here. There were tons of crab eating macaques on the path to the Underground River, including the tiniest bonkey you ever did see. I swear, that thing must have been birthed a mere seconds before our arrival. How cute?!

Near the entrance to the park we also saw a handful of big monitor lizards. Now if these aren’t proof that dinosaurs once existed, I don’t know what is. Except maybe dinosaur fossils. These guys have long claws and the craziest tongues on them. I’m not sure if they are blind as bats and use their tongues like cats use their whiskers, but these long snake-like tongues spend more time out of their mouths than they do in. Speaking of bats, we saw them by the thousands hanging from the ceiling above the river. We also spotted a water snake deep in the cave. Those poisonous, floating snakes are twice as scary as their land counterparts, slithering across the water, their heads raised like they’re ready to fight.

Having seen the Underground River, we’d essentially seen Sabang. So our first bit of advice for visiting would be to not spend three nights in this town. Unless you are not staying at Dab Dab and then maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. But, we were unsure whether we’d be able to get a permit (more on this below) in time to see the river if we only had one full day post-arrival, and so we opted for three nights. This left us an entire day to explore the rest of Sabang’s offerings.

We walked along the beach heading west from town (the sea is to the north here even though you might think it’s to the west) to check out the waterfalls. It’s a short, maybe one kilometer walk, albeit along a rocky beach, and the waterfalls are certainly not Iguacu impressive, but it’s a very lovely spot to hang out, read a book, maybe drink some Tanduay and cokes and have a little dip in the pool at the base of the waterfall. We also stopped on our way back for lunch in the treehouse of Alpuerto, the last resort pre-hike (and the first resort post-hike, as their signs remind you). We ordered everything on the menu, which isn’t all that impressive when the menu is “fish or squids.” The portions did not disappoint. Alan was served half of a ten pound fish (grilled only enough to eat about a third of it unless you’re attempting to experiment with unintended Filipino sushi) and Jenni an entire foot-long squid that had been grilled and then cut in pieces right on her plate. This isn’t like the US where your calamari serving disguises well its former appearance.

The main part of Sabang is quite small. It’s a rustic waterfront village with a handful of shops, hotels and restaurants, and nary an ATM. It feels quite rugged and undeveloped here, which is nice, and reminded Alan a bit of Koh Phangan many years back. Though this coastal town is beautiful, it’s not a great area for swimming as the waters are quite rough and much of the beach is rocky.

We also enjoyed walking through the more “residential” area of town, a small dirt road village where Alan made friends by taking pictures of the boys and letting them see. And while her level of restraint is improving, Jenni is still not entirely able to walk by dogs and not pet them. And the Philippines is a country for dog lovers. They are everywhere. But they aren’t all so nice.

Heading east from town along the beach there are a handful of resorts, restaurants, spas (though the word “spa” should be taken with a grain of salt as these are basically just beds on the beach), and boat rental stands. We popped in for breakfast at a spot that had been recommended to us, Green Verde, and ordered a pancake, which, I think, was literally a sheet cake. Not complaining. But what surprised us was a sign on one side that said “Note: this establishment has been closed effective XXX.” Given that there were at least five other tables occupied by tourists and a waitress who directed us to a table, we ignored the sign and sat down to eat at what was very clearly an open for business restaurant. Then as we walked back towards our own hotel we noticed a sign in the town center that explained that Green Verde was not permitted to operate and that anyone patronizing its resort or restaurant would not be afforded the protections of local law and would suffer the consequences of (I shit you not) “bad karma.” Is that not the strangest thing? I later came THIS close to getting knocked in the head by a very large falling coconut…karma? Half karma because we only ordered one pancake?

We also got some seriously good massages at Joy’s Spa on the beach for about $10 an hour. Highly recommend. The beds were set up right on the beach so you could listen to the sound of the waves as you relaxed, and as if they’d planned it, there were about four dogs hanging out under our tables, keeping us company, right as our massages ended.

::Joy's Spa::
::Joy’s Spa::

Other than that, we did a lot of reading, a bit of napping. To be fair, there are some other activities you can partake in: ziplining, a boat tour of the mangroves, heck you can even rent Segways, but our tip: come for the Underground River, stay anywhere other than Dab Dab and head on out for greener pastures –er, waters –up north!

Practical Info

Withdraw cash in Puerto Princesa (unless you are coming from the north, then you’re just screwed) as there are no ATMs in Sabang. The ATM we visited in Puerto Princesa had a withdrawal max of 10,000PHP, so if you have two different accounts it might be helpful as that amount goes quickly.  There are several little stores and food stands in the tiny town of Sabang.  A cocktail at a hotel bar costs 100-200PHP, or you could buy a fifth of Tanduay rum at a store for 90PHP. San Miguel beer is pretty tasty and found everywhere in Palawan and presumably the whole country.

You cannot visit the Underground River without a permit, and unfortunately the process for getting a permit is not entirely clear.  Many come to Sabang on an organized day trip out of Puerto Princesa, so presumably there are tour agencies who take care of everything.  If you visit independently, I think there may be an office in Puerto Princesa where you can secure a permit, but I’m not sure.  The permit office in Sabang is in town, on the pier fronting the basketball court. I think the hours are 8 am – 4 pm. We arrived the first day after 4 pm so we went to the office before 8 am the next day.  After a bit of back and forth, it seemed that we would be able to visit the river that day but the office in Puerto Princesa that assigns numbers doesn’t open until 9 am. After breakfast we returned and ended up being told we could proceed at around 10 am.  The ticket for the river costs 250PHP each and there is an environmental fee of 40PHP each.

So the next move is you take your ticket and walk to the tented area on the pier to try to secure a boat for the return journey.  The boat costs 700PHP return and accommodates six people, so you may want to ask to share.  We did and thus paid only 240PHP total (apparently there is some 20PHP “terminal fee” or the like for each boat, who knows).  So all-in our visit to the river cost 820PHP, which is much better than the 800PHP each that folks were pushing on us as a package deal.

You get on the boat and the ride to the river takes about 20 minutes.  Our facilitator checked us in and we scoped the monitor lizards before walking a few minutes past macaques to the cave entrance. There we waited several more minutes before boarding the little boat that a guy rows in and out of the cave. The actual time on the river is perhaps 45 minutes and you go about 1.5km into the cave.  I am told that you can make arrangements a few days in advance and secure a special permit to go farther into the cave, though I’m not sure how much the scenery changes.

Transportation: In general it is not so easy to get around Palawan.  Private transport is shockingly expensive relative to other prices here, and most public transport involves transfers.  Keep this in mind if you plan to visit the Underground River and then depart the same day, i.e. organized vans and buses only leave at certain times and if you miss those then your private transfer will be costly.

We arrived to the Puerto Princesa airport on a MAS Wings flight directly from Kota Kinabalu. This is the only airport on the large main island of Palawan with regularly scheduled commercial flights. Air Asia flies here. There are flights from Manila and a few other domestic cities.

We went to the little “El Mundo”table inside the minuscule airport where we were quoted 3500PHP for a van to Sabang but we ended up sharing a van with another couple and paying a total of 2500PHP.  You could also take a tricycle to the San Jose terminal and from there take a Lexus van, jeepney or public bus.  Our van ride took a little more than 2 hours on generally windy roads.  We were surprised by the security presence with multiple armed guards at each bank and even some stores.

For onward travel from Sabang to Port Barton, you can take a bangka, private van or some combo of jeepney, van and/or bus.  We ended up taking a private van for 3000PHP (it took a little over three hours), which we arranged via the Bing Booking Services desk in Sabang town. You could try calling them at 09164925989 or 09079098901.  At least if you travel by road, be sure to discard any mangoes you were hoarding as you will pass an inspection station whose mission is to stop the spread of the mango pulp weevil. Die, weevil, die.

Accommodation: We stayed at Dab Dab. I would say that more than any other place on our Asia trip I was disappointed with the value. We booked through agoda and paid roughly 2350PHP/night for a “Family” room, which had two beds and a private bath. The property is at the beach west of town but our room was set way back, on a stagnant body of water that is probably a magnet for bugs.  And further from the soothing sound of the ocean yet closer to roosters and fighting dogs. The mosquito net didn’t really fit and we were infiltrated by a rat.

And don’t be surprised to find a strange man sleeping on your hammock and fishing in your pond when you return to your cabin. His name is Lido. Do not be alarmed when he does not offer to leave the space you paid to occupy, for he is the uncle of the owner of the hotel, and this is where he fishes.

The restaurant on site was pretty good but they were out of half the menu half the time and the service was awful.  We quickly learned this is the case most places in the Philippines.  Hands down the worst service generally speaking of any country we have visited.  We also learned that if you’re willing to show up without a reservation, you can probably get a much better deal.

Dab Dab was lame, but what made it so much worse is that we inquired at several other places and found we could rent a bare-bones hut closer to the beach for literally one-quarter the price.  I would check out Robert’s on the beach east of town, and Blue Bamboo (Sunbird Cottages?) or Alpuerto near the water west of town.  Each seemed to have rooms with private bath for 500-600PHP.  None of these places is friendly to rolling luggage.

The more luxurious options are Sheridan (where we ate lunch one day and the pool looked nice) and Daluyon.

Food: Beware the heavy application of mayonnaise on many items.  Our meals at Dab Dab were pretty good.  We also had lunch one day at Sheridan, which was quite good if a bit pricier (entrees more like 350-400PHP).  Plus yummy piña coladas.  And lunch at the “Tree House” at Alpuerto, which was fine food in a lovely setting (180PHP each for fish and squid).

Activities: The Underground River is the main activity and we covered this above. I believe one could actually hike from town to the river entrance and shed the boat fee while gaining a bit of adventure.  Perhaps the next most popular activity is a mangrove boat tour.  We skipped that but did walk to the waterfall on the rocky beach west of town, also covered above.  Note that at the last sign of civilization heading out of the village you may be asked to register for the walk, and a small donation is suggested but not required. There is a zipline east of town and we saw Segway rentals.  And our massages on the beach at Joy’s Spa were great.

March 11-14, 2014 (Tuesday-Friday)

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