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Whale-less wandering at Donsol, Sorsogon

You may not see the famed butanding, but fret not – says Michael David C. Tan – as there’s more to Bicol than the gentle giants of the seas.

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An oft-repeated adage is the need not to lose sight of the forest for the trees (a different take at “Don’t lose sight of the big picture”) – that is, that if we focus too much on a single tree (or some trees), we may forget that the tree (or trees) we admire is (are) but one (or some) of the many in that forest. This is sound advice, definitely – after all, why over-emphasize on minute details when the big prize is yet to be achieved?

However, when traveling to Donsol in Sorsogon, in search of the famed butanding (whale sharks), I’d say: Forget the forest; it’s the trees that should define the experience. Because while swimming with the gentle giants of the seas is, definitely, a magical experience, if it is the end-all of a trip to the place, that trip could end up… not exactly happy.

As our whale-less wandering at Donsol, Sorsogon proved.

WHERE TO?

It was approximately a year after booking a flight to Legazpi City in Albay when my friend (Rye Mendoza) reminded me of our pending trip – that’s what happens with too-early bookings: either you’d forget about it (as I almost did this time around), or end up choosing to forget about it (as I repeatedly did in past reservations). It was, for him, something new, since he has never been to the place in the past; and while I have, repeatedly, visited the place, the enthusiasm was… contagious. And so we headed out sans any plans at all what to do when we get there.

Legazpi is, by itself, a place full of mini- and not-so-mini wonders – heck, the view of the MAJESTIC Mayon Volcano alone makes the trip worth it! From afar, the volcano looks like it was pasted (or painted, for the more poetic) against the blue sky, it makes one believe in the Divine – that only some intelligent hand could design something so artsy, so beauteous in our midst. And – should you be so lucky if you landed with clear skies – it’s a sight to behold as soon as you land, too.

And then there’s the Bicolano food. I have long been a fan of how Bicolanos whip up what they whip up – Bicol Express, ginataang balat ng santol (santol peeling with coconut milk), balat ng pili (pili peeling) turned into burger patties… The gustatory possibilities here are endless. Interestingly, they even use the same as toppings on… a pan pizza! That too spicy for you? Cleanse the palate with freshly-baked malunggay pan de sal – available from numerous bakeries off the main streets.

But back on track now… to Albay’s neighboring province to the south, Sorsogon, where Donsol is.

Donsol is approximately an hour away from Legazpi City, with the roads not offering much as far as scenery is concerned but, well, provincial living. We took a van (over P60, one-way) that was supposed to take us to Donsol, but – as luck had it – the van stalled, so we transferred to the only jeepney passing, which happened to be full; so we sat atop the jeepney. Take in views of the rice paddies, people chatting while sitting ON the highway, chickens crossing the road… For Manileños, you have to go as far as the outskirts of Cavite to see such scenes, so the experience was refreshing.

Donsol is, in one word, sleepy. Not much happens here, with just about everything revolving around the butanding. There are abundant accommodations to choose from – homestays are common in the town proper, while closer to the wharf where the boats that head out to spot the butanding are more expensive resorts. As is usual in small towns, though, everything’s accessible by motorcycle or tricycle.

WHAT FISH?

And so we gravitated towards the Donsol Tourism Office (DTO), where we registered (P100 is the fee for locals; P300 for visitors, irrespective of nationality) and then were made to attend a brief orientation session on how to deal with the butanding.

Worth remembering is this: per boat that leaves the wharf to view the butanding requires seven tourists; meaning, in our case, since there were just two of us, it’s time to be friendly with other tourists who may invite you to join them (or you can form groups with) so you cut the costs of the boat rental (approximately P3,500). This we did with a German, a Frenchman and a Swiss.

Another thing worth remembering is this: If at all you are planning to see the butanding, bring your own swimming/snorkeling equipment. Why? Because outside the DTO are stalls “requiring” tourists to rent masks, snorkels and fins for P300 (entire set). Nature-tripping was, for us at that point, getting expensive.

But as soon as you leave dry land (with a “butanding interaction officer”, spotters and the boat’s crew), you are just about ready to forgive the too-apparent monetizing of the entire experience.

Alas, once in the water, all the locals stress that there’s no guarantee of seeing any butanding. Various reasons are offered: “Hapon na kasi (It’s already late)”; “Hindi nila season ngayon (It’s off-season)”; “Ilang araw na walang nakita (It’s been days since any was spotted)”; and so on. And all the while, I was just thinking: “If not seeing was known before we boarded the boat, why were we still made to pay to look for what the locals acknowledge we will not be seeing?”. Big-time opportunism, in a gist.

Worse, there were too many boats roaming the waters, so that if a butanding is seen at all, it would have been swamped – completely contrary to the lessons supposed to be learned from DTO’s instructional video.

An hour passed. Then two. Then three… The sun was starting to turn orange. And so we headed back to the shore. The gentle giants remained elusive.

We were told to return earlier the next day,  for who knows what tomorrow is supposed to bring.

Flummoxed – not just annoyed – we toured the town, and once again encountered what these parts of the Philippines have to offer. Ginataang pating (shark with coconut milk – and, yes, we saw the irony in it being served in the turo-turo right outside the DTO). Ginataang dahon ng kamoteng kahoy  (Cassava leaves with coconut milk). And there’s this dish made of small fishes cooked with greenies and lots and lots of green and red chilis – somewhat sour, yet tantalizingly good as it makes the mouth water and crave for more. This is Bicol food as can only be imagined…

Nights are quiet. You can spend it stuck in your room (reading a book, Wi-Fi-ing, or whatever), drink with buddies (which we did with the German), or firefly-watching (by the river in a place between the town proper and the DTO, almost magical as you watch the fireflies seemingly dance in the night as they make low-hanging trees glow). But these are refreshing, for me a hark back to my rural days…

Armed with wishes/prayers/hope, the next day started with another demand for money – tourists need to pay the P3,500 boat fee again. The equipment you can “borrow” from whichever stall you rented them out, because – after all – they were not put to any use the day before.

Alas, the day ended (again) sans any butanding sighting…

WONDROUS EXPERIENCE

I have swum with the butanding (which can grow over 15 meters long) before – and, yes, I can say it’s a MAGICAL experience. I still remember being in the murky water, not knowing where to look – and then, seemingly from nowhere, you get a glimpse of this HUGE creature nearing you, and then gliding by you. Breathtaking? Yes. Dramatic? Yes. Exhilarating? Yes. It will, truly, make you feel like that proverbial “nothing but a speck of matter floating in space”. I hope that even Donsol’s (over)commercialization of the experience won’t ruin it (that much).

Back in Legazpi City, Bicol’s wonders were experienced again – a closer view of Mayon Volcano, discovering the antiquated churches, meeting the shy (tentatively friendly) locals, and yes, more Bicolano food. The latter – i.e. food – is, dare I say, something the really defines this place (they even have siling ice cream, or ice cream with chili!).

And these are the “trees” that you are bound to miss if the sole focus is to see the “forest” that is the butanding that may not always show itself (note: head there from February through April, the peak season). Because there are times when the details are more precious than the big picture.

M.D. dela Cruz Tan is the founder of Zest Magazine. And no, the initials (i.e. M.D.) do not make him a "medical doctor" (as many have erroneously thought in the past); he is actually a graduate of Bachelor of Arts (Communication Studies) of the University of Newcastle in New South Wales Australia (just don't ask when, he says). He can: photograph, do artworks with mixed media, write (of course), shoot flicks, community-organize, facilitate, lecture, research (with pioneering studies under his belt)... this one's a multi-tasker, who is even conversant in Filipino Sign Language. Cross his path is the dare (read: It won't be boring).

Destinations

Embrace the city’s pulse with Citadines Living

Citadines emerges as a haven for those seeking a genuine city living experience, blending comfort and convenience seamlessly. The brand invites you to embark on an urban adventure, so you don’t just visit the city, you get to live it and explore infinite possibilities.

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As travel and hospitality continue to evolve, Citadines emerges as a haven for those seeking a genuine city living experience, blending comfort and convenience seamlessly. The brand invites you to embark on an urban adventure, so you don’t just visit the city, you get to live it and explore infinite possibilities. 

Citadines: Fostering the Love For Cities

More than just a place to stay, Citadines embodies a lifestyle crafted for guests in search of a home away from home. With a global presence, Citadines stands out by creating a space where comfort, convenience, and style come together for the love of cities. 

Citadines adds its unique charm to prominent destinations through various properties in the Philippines, including Citadines Bay City Manila, Citadines Salcedo Makati, Citadines Millennium Ortigas Manila, Citadines Cebu City, Citadines Amigo Iloilo, Citadines Roces Quezon City, and upcoming locations like Citadines Bacolod City (opening on March 2024) and Citadines Paragon Davao (opening on December 2024).

Each location acts as a gateway for exploration, providing convenient entry to corporate offices, entertainment districts, dining venues, and vibrant shopping centers. Whether it’s the dynamic streets of Makati City or the business hub of Quezon City, Citadines creates the perfect backdrop for a fully engaging urban adventure.

Citadines Benavidez Makati: A Modern Oasis

Citadines Benavidez Makati blends modernity and comfort with its 207 meticulously designed units, ranging from the cozy Studio Deluxe to the expansive Two-Bedroom Premier. Guests are welcomed into contemporary interiors featuring fully equipped kitchens, plush bedding, high-speed Wi-Fi, and state-of-the-art flat-screen TVs. The property’s unique charm extends beyond its physical spaces as a dedicated team of “Citazens,” local experts ready to unveil the city’s hidden gems, are available to help guests through their stay. 

Culinary delights await at Catalogue, the property’s all-day dining restaurant, offering a tantalizing fusion of local and international cuisines. With a thoughtfully curated menu spanning various regions and cultures, Catalogue elevates the dining experience, contributing to the overall sense of comfort and sophistication at Citadines Benavidez Makati. The rooftop swimming pool and fitness corner with panoramic city views further enhance the urban oasis, catering to both business and leisure travelers.

Citadines Roces Quezon City: A Haven in the Former Capital

In the pulsating corners of Metro Manila’s largest city and former capital, Citadines Roces Quezon City takes center stage with 185 thoughtfully appointed apartments – from spacious studios to comfortable two-bedroom units. Each space is curated with modern amenities, ensuring a comfortable and enjoyable stay for every urban explorer.

The interiors of each apartment incorporate clean lines, contemporary furnishings, and a harmonious color palette to create an ambiance that is both inviting and stylish. The design inspiration draws from the pulsating rhythm of urban life, with nods to the rich cultural heritage of Quezon City. Subtle touches echo the vibrant art scene and historical landmarks, creating a seamless blend of modernity and tradition within the living spaces.

Citadines Roces Quezon City takes pride in its array of facilities designed to elevate the overall experience. The fitness center, equipped with state-of-the-art equipment, invites guests to maintain their health and well-being even amidst a busy city schedule. The swimming pool, residents’ lounge, and rooftop bar with panoramic city skyline views become extensions of the living space, providing opportunities for relaxation and socialization. Whether it’s a refreshing dip in the pool, casual conversations in the residents’ lounge, or sipping a drink while enjoying the cityscape from the rooftop bar, each amenity adds a layer of richness to the urban living experience.

Loven Ramos, Director of Brand and Marketing of The Ascott Limited Philippines, expressed the brand’s vision: “Our goal is to curate spaces that inspire a genuine connection with the heartbeat of cities, creating an environment where guests not only reside but truly thrive in the love for the dynamic energy, cultural richness, and endless possibilities each city holds. With Citadines, we aim to cultivate a deep appreciation that transforms stays into love stories with the cities we call home.”

Both Citadines Benavidez Makati and Citadines Roces Quezon City embody the brand’s commitment to fostering love for cities, inviting guests on business or leisure trips to not just visit the city but live in it – whether it’s for a night, a week, a month, or a lifetime.

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Dining Out

Lanson Place Mall of Asia, Manila announces offerings

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As the Chinese New Year approaches, Lanson Place Mall of Asia, Manila invites you to welcome the Year of the Wood Dragon with a delightful fusion of romance and tradition just in time for Valentine’s. This 10 and 11 February 2024, experience the vibrant festivities that will set the stage for a prosperous year ahead.

The heart of Lanson Place will come alive with the rhythmic beats of the traditional lion and dragon dance, ushering in good energy and fortune. Guests are welcome to join the traditional performance starting at 10:59 AM on 10 February, creating an auspicious atmosphere for a year full of joy and abundance. Following the ceremony, guests are welcome to join us at the 3F lobby and Cyan Modern Kitchen for the ceremonial Yee Sang or Prosperity Toss, a symbolic ritual headed by Executive Chef Kristine Oro, beckoning luck and good fortune leading the guests to a Prosperity Feast at Cyan Modern Kitchen.

CYAN Modern Kitchen: Tradition Meets Romance

Take the chance to win lucky prizes from the Tree of Luck and Love when you indulge in a delectable lunch or dinner for every single transaction of P8,888 at the CYAN Modern Kitchen, setting in motion a year of good luck.

Treat yourself to a delightful meal at Cyan Modern Kitchen to please your senses and revel in the captivating ambience while savouring a sumptuous Chinese New Year lunch buffet or an equally enticing dinner buffet for PHP 2,888 net per person.

As the sun sets on the Lunar New Year celebrations, Lanson Place transforms into a haven for lovers. A romantic evening waits for a Valentine’s Day experience with a specially curated 4-course dinner, followed by a tempting dessert buffet for PhP 3,800 net per person. 

Let the contemporary charm of Cyan Modern Kitchen captivate you, where floor-to-ceiling windows frame the scenic vistas of the Manila Bay, the city skyline, and the courtyard, crafting dining spaces that define Lanson Place Mall of Asia. Celebrate in the warmth of February by sharing moments of laughter, love, delectable fare, and abundance with your loved ones this 10 to 14 February 2024.

Extending the celebration through a relaxing stay? Lunar Escape Room Package, rates start at PHP9,888+++ per room per night for two persons inclusive of welcome amenities, buffet breakfast, lunch or dinner buffet at Cyan Modern Kitchen.

Embrace love with our Valentine’s Room Package, rates start at PHP 10,900+++ per room per night inclusive of welcome amenities, buffet breakfast, and 4-course Set Dinner for two persons at Cyan Modern Kitchen.

Grab these promos for the booking period of January 28 to February 8, 2024 through the official website now, and indulge in the perfect blend of tradition and romance at Lanson Place Mall of Asia, Manila. 

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Travel

Philippines as the country with the world’s largest bats

“The Philippines has 79 recorded bat species, half of them endemic,” explains Dr. Mariano Roy Duya of the University of the Philippines Institute of Biology (UPIB). North America, with a land area that is 66 times larger – has but 45. We have an incredible diversity of bats since each of our 7100 islands is geographically unique. And of course, we have the largest bat of all.”

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By Gregg Yan

Did you know that the largest bat of all is found only in the Philippines? Planet Earth has 1400 known bat species and the Golden-crowned Flying Fox (Acerodon jubatus) earns the top spot for size and weight. Known locally as kabog, it is endemic or found nowhere else but in the Philippines.

Strikingly patterned with a golden cap, reddish fur and chocolate-brown wings, adults weigh over a kilogram and can boast of a wingspan nearly two meters across – longer than most people are tall.

“The Philippines has 79 recorded bat species, half of them endemic,” explains Dr. Mariano Roy Duya of the University of the Philippines Institute of Biology (UPIB). North America, with a land area that is 66 times larger – has but 45. We have an incredible diversity of bats since each of our 7100 islands is geographically unique. And of course, we have the largest bat of all.”

Once widespread throughout undisturbed lowland forests across the country, hunting and deforestation – particularly from slash-and-burn upland farming or kaingin – have whittled down bat populations.

Dumaguete-based filmmaker Rhiyad Maturan and I were recently invited by the Energy Development Corporation (EDC) to film a thriving kabog colony inside the Bacon-Manito Geothermal Project, a heavily forested geothermal reservation nestled between the provinces of Albay and Sorsogon on the island of Luzon. Though the area is now verdant and alive, it wasn’t always so.

“Believe it or not, that entire mountain range was once logged-over,” says Ed Jimenez, corporate relations head for EDC’s Bacon-Manito Geothermal Project, pointing at well-forested hills nearby. “The only trees left were the ones loggers ignored. To bring the mountains back to life, we worked with the local communities to help reforest this area while providing them with an alternative source of income. Decades later, the organizations we helped form, like the Alliance of Bacman Farmer’s Association Inc. Agriculture Cooperative (formerly ALBAFAI) and the Bacman Host Community Multi-purpose Cooperative (BMPC), have become some of our most passionate champions. Even the grandchildren of the original members are helping us plant trees, promote community-based conservation and protect these forests.”

Aside from bats, Bicol’s forests also shelter wild deer, pigs, monkeys and birds – most of which were driven to remote areas by decades of hunting and forest loss.

“I learned to shoot kabog with an airgun when I was still a kid,” recalls Joseph ‘Doy’ Gabion, a former bat hunter. “Bats are easy to hunt by day because they hang upside down from their roosts. When the roosts were eventually protected by EDC and its conservation partners, we hunters had to wait until the bats flew out to their feeding grounds. Back in the 1990s, my uncle and I would wait for them to pass to be able to catch two or three bats a night. Kabog meat has a slightly woody taste.” Doy has since stopped hunting and now volunteers with the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ CAFGU Active Auxiliary Unit II to help protect the very animals he once hunted.

The kabog colony moves from one area to another within the Bacman reservation and we chanced upon them roosting on a grove of pine-like Agoho (Casuarina spp.) trees. “We have about 700 kabog individuals here now, our flagship fauna species for this site,” explains Forester Neil Miras, EDC Bacman’s watershed management officer.

Representing iconic wildlife found in its geothermal, solar and wind sites, EDC’s Flagship Species Initiative (FSI) aims to popularize some of the nation’s lesser-known forest denizens. The eight other flagship species include the Philippine Warty Pig (Sus philippensis)Visayan Hornbill (Penelopides panini)Apo Myna (Goodfellowia miranda), plus native trees like Mapilig (Xanthostemon bracteatus), Katmon Bayani (Dillenia megalantha), Red Lauan (Shorea negrosensis),Almaciga (Agathis philippinensis)andIgem-dagat (Podocarpus costalis). EDC has been planting native trees across the country since the 1980s.

“Though millions of trees have been planted under the BINHI Program, we should still recognize the importance and effectiveness of natural seed dispersion – either by the wind, water or by local wildlife,” explainsForester Abegail Gatdula, EDC-FSI project manager. “Flying animals like birds and bats eat the fruits of various forest trees and disperse them far and wide within life-giving guano bombs, giving the seeds a vital headstart.”  

Though not as popular as the Tamaraw or Philippine Eagle, the kabog has been quietly doing its part to make the Philippines greener. “Think of them as the ‘silent seed planters’ of nature. We never pay them but they keep working for our world,” concludes Jean Dayap, Municipal Environment and Natural Resources Officer (MENRO) of Manito in Albay.  

So tonight, please look up at the night sky to thank our uncelebrated wildlife heroes, quietly working the night shift to make the Philippines a little greener – one guano bomb at a time.

Watch our Golden-crowned Flying Fox documentary HERE.

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