Beautiful blue skies and powder beaches, exhilarating outdoor activities, mouth-watering cuisine, warm smiles, and cosmopolitan cities with all its accompanying trappings – the list of what awaits you on the Philippine Islands is as long as the afternoon siestas that you will be lulled into taking or the playful shadows during the majestic sunsets. Spread out over more than 7,000 islands, the possibilities are endless and in no time, you too will be chiming the popular refrain, “It’s more fun in the Philippines”.
With the many dramatic volcanic peaks towering over cities, glorious coral fringed coasts and verdant padi fields, it is the call of the mountains that really beckons to a great number of traveler to the Philippine Islands. In the North, the omnipresent Mount Pinatubo dominates the landscape and the best place to begin your journey to this mighty massif is at Clark – a city within the city of Angeles City.
Largest Eruption on the Philippine Islands
In 1991, Mount Pinatubo exploded in a fury of ash and magma that was unparalleled in over a hundred years. The eruption was so massive that volcanic ash even made it as far away as Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia. Although the area was turned into a wasteland after the eruption, the last 25 years has seen a resurgence in its flora and fauna. Since then, it has also played host to many thrill seekers looking for an adrenaline rush.
For the intrepid adventurer looking for an uphill challenge, the best way to begin an assault on the slopes and lahar plains of Mount Pinatubo, is to fly into Clark International Airport, the northern gateway to the Philippine Islands that serves about a million passengers annually. Regardless of where you set off from, a trip to the summit of Mount Pinatubo starts at Capas, Tarlac where you need to register at the municipal tourism office, pay the 700 peso park fees and saddle up in a rugged off-road vehicle.The ride into the park, across the lahar plains is a unique adventure in itself. The jeep bumps around on uneven ground that has been heavily eroded by the capricious nature of tropical weather, threatening to eject your from your seat at any time. The soft ground underneath is composed of lahar which, is volcanic ash mixed with rain water – turning it into a deadly, fast-moving mud flow during heavy rains that, is dense enough to sweep aside everything in its path. For this reason, access to the park can be halted during the monsoon season. Ribbons of rivulets criss-cross the wide track leading up to the foot of Pinatubo, in an otherwise grey and barren landscape. Get ready to hold on to your hats, cameras and life, as the ride is as jarring as a bucking bronco.
There are several options for the day trip to this stunningly beautiful natural playground, but the most popular by far is the one that involves crossing the ashen plains by off-road vehicle for 1 hour and then a short hike of about 2 hours to reach the crater lake and summit. Expect to get your feet wet as you hop and skip on rocks to get across small streams on the way to the peak.Right smack in the center of the crater is the flooded caldera that forms a picturesque lake. Dip your feet or wade in the cool waters to celebrate your summit; the sulphuric waters are purported to boost blood circulation and ease fatigue.
Abode of the Gods
The people of the Aeta tribe have eked out a livelihood in the shadow of Mount Pinatubo since time immemorial and as a constant imposing presence, it is regarded as the home of their deities. The 1991 eruption hit these people the hardest and devastated an area of about 800 km2 , claimed over 800 lives and laid waste to 800,000 head of livestock.
Today, the land is slowly being rejuvenated naturally from that calamity and many Aeta households have started moving back since 2009. Governmental and private initiatives in the area that focuses on tourism have provided them with means to earn an income and their prospects are starting to improve. Most significantly, in 2010, they were finally granted title deeds that recognises their tribe’s ownership of ancestral land along the slopes of Pinatubo.
Sweat It Out
If the hike to the top of Pinatubo did not get you perspiring, or if you want to soothe your aching muscles, the Puning Hot Springs is the next destination that you want to visit. There are thermal heated pools and others with cool water to soak in and ease your tired muscles.Aside from the many pools perched on the steep sides of the slope, Puning Hot Springs offers a unique hot sand treatment which buries guests under a heap of sand while a therapist walks all over you. Surprisingly, the effect is very enjoyable, if you can get over the initial feelings of claustrophobia. Lunch is included in the package and it is a fine spread of local dishes. I managed to put away 3 rounds before collapsing into a food-induced stupor.
Back at Clark, those with a love for history, especially military history will want to tour what was once the largest American air base on foreign soil. Clark Air Base was the staging point for many missions during World War 2 (WW2) and the Vietnam War. It served as a stronghold for the combined American and Filipino forces during the final days of WW2 as the Allies closed in on Imperial Japan. It is still in service today with the Philippine military but as an open base, visitors are allowed access. There are even casinos, hotels and golf resorts within the compound. Clark itself isn’t large but transport is most convenient using Uber or Grab.
Do visit the aircraft display at the Airforce Park, where one can wander around vintage Vietnam War era jets and helicopters. At the Mountain Clark Firing Range, visitors can try out various types of firearms such as pistols, shot guns, assault rifles and even submachine guns. The experienced and professional staff will supervise your session and ensure everyone has a safe and enjoyable time. After all, guns are not toys and should be treated with the utmost care.
Competitive shooters will be happy to know that there are target boards so that you will know by the end of the session if you are a crack shot, whether you are at least better than your companions or if you need more practise on a video game console.
Philippine Island Culinary Capital
Some travelers like the outdoors, some prefer a day floating in the hotel pool but, everyone loves food! Elsewhere in the Philippines, Clark is known to have the best in the country. So popular are the Kapampangan ethnic dishes that they have become synonymous with Philippine Island cuisine worldwide. Sisig and the ever popular lechon originated from this region and is top on any foodie’s list while in travelling the Philippine Islands.
If you are looking for something more eclectic, the Kapampangan menu will also satisfy your curiosity with an assortment of cooked bugs and the little less adventurous betute tugak. This is fried frogs stuffed with minced meat. It’s tasty and a real treat, especially when washed down with a cool mug of beer.
Aside from local fare, there are also many establishments that serve up an international array of dishes. Good ol’ American offerings like breaded pork chops or chicken cutlets with home-made mashed potatoes and tall glasses of iced-tea are not hard to find.
Direct Flights to Clark
The Philippines’ very own Cebu Pacific runs direct flights to Clark from Singapore at least twice a day, and three times a day on Mondays, Thursdays and Sundays. We caught the late afternoon flight which took approximately 3.5 hours. The timing is just perfect as you will arrive in time for an early night, and be raring to go the next morning.The A320 which carried us to the awesome Philippine Islands had generous overhead cabin space which, was a godsend to me as I generally have very little check-in baggage. I was able to fit all my equipment snugly and safely in the allotted space.
The on-board meals which are an optional purchase were very tasty. The chicken adobo, pictured here, was my first taste of local fare, and it whipped up my appetite for more after landing.
What really made the flight stand out though, were the friendly flight attendants. They were professional and very warm – showing off the world-famous Philippine grace and charisma. A little after taking off, the attendants engaged the passengers with a question and answer game with prizes!! I could not resist but to join in.
After all that eating and entertainment, the best thing to do is to lie back in your seat and enjoy the view. The magic of sunset was only the prelude to charms that the island nation cast upon me over the course of my journey.