Dr. Frazier Adventure in the Philippines

December 12, 2009
Dr. Gregory Frazier
Dr. Gregory Frazier
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

Having made multiple runs across the globe, round-the-world adventurer Dr. Frazier imparts some of his motorcycle traveling wisdom in his monthly Dr. Frazier Rides column.

This river was the road through the high walled canyon  cooling refreshment after spending several previous hours in 90 degree heat with higher humidity.
This river was the road through the high walled canyon, cooling refreshment after spending several previous hours in 90 degree heat with higher humidity.

“It’s dangerous.”

So said one of my motorcycle adventure advisors when I was researching a planned trip by motorcycle around the Philippines. While I am not known as a risk junkie, neither am I known to be a motorcycle adventurist with an IQ below the triple digit level. A little danger mixed with well thought out management has always piqued my interest.

After further questioning the advisor listed the following as dangerous:

1) The loss of considerable time and money by flying or shipping my own motorcycle into a notorious customs bureaucracy with nearly prohibitive import requirements
2) Bad road conditions in places due to washouts and tropical weather conditions
3) Errant drivers
4) Political unrest and guerrillas
5) Corruption

This stream was can do but only in the dry season  like this pictured time.
This stream was “can do” but only in the dry season, like this pictured time.

On the upside were elements like remote jungle riding, easy dollar conversion, English as a language, reasonably inexpensive accommodations, and a motorcycle friendly atmosphere and culture. The deal maker was when the adventure advisor said, “As an avid motorhead you will be able to appreciate seeing some motorcycles and vehicles in the Philippines not seen anywhere else in the world.”

The risk of squandering considerable amounts of money flying my personal motorcycle into the disreputably expensive customs and importation process was averted by flying in sans motorcycle with only my travel gear, then renting a motorcycle once inside the country. The costs of the rental motorcycles varied from $20 to $40 per day. A Yamaha 750cc Tenere equipped with saddle bags and a luggage rack carried me for two weeks over gravel and paved roads. A 200cc Honda XR did much of the dirty jungle riding.

The road conditions varied, the risk being my believing locals when they said the road conditions ahead were good. My definition of “good” varied widely from that of local experts, some of whom had never been over the trail or road I asked about. Managing this risk usually meant that three to four informants all claiming the same road conditions usually meant it was good, or bad. My choice of choosing November through February as adventure time meant the monsoons and typhoons were avoided, and therefore road conditions from rain were normally dry.

A friendly rental agency in Angeles City not only had larger  well maintained motorcycles for rent at a reasonable daily rate  but offered helmets as well as free advice on a wide variety of attractions.
A friendly rental agency in Angeles City not only had larger, well maintained motorcycles for rent at a reasonable daily rate, but offered helmets as well as free advice on a wide variety of attractions.

The risk from errant vehicle drivers was largely avoided by staying away from large cities and driving at sedate speeds. While the Yamaha 750cc Tenere was capable of speeds in excess of 100 mph, my upper limit was usually 60-65 mph, and most often lower given posted speed limits and road conditions. Stop signs and stop lights were observed by the local drivers. Applying my personal international rule of not driving at night avoided many crashes I saw that had been the result of drinking and driving after dark. I also avoided driving on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, a time when locals were known to party a bit more than during the weekdays.

Political unrest was a minor risk, as I was well away from the centers of trouble. An attempted coup to topple the government went nearly unnoticed in the area I was traveling through, as it was far from the center of activity, Manila. During the attempted coup there were a higher number of military vehicles on the main roads and around police stations, but not so much as to impede my usual 150-250-mile days. Because the newspapers and television news reports were in English there was almost a running account of where things were “hot” and best avoided.

Because I avoided dealing with the customs bureaucracy and expensive bonding agents by renting a local motorcycle, if there was corruption, it would have been on the highways. With a local license plate on the motorcycle I easily passed through the several police and military inspection points.

Beach life was common. Hotel rooms ranged from  25.00 per night to several hundred  depending on the health of the travelers budget.
Beach life was common. Hotel rooms ranged from $25.00 per night to several hundred, depending on the health of the travelers budget.

The Philippines was an archipelago comprising 7,107 islands, and the 12th most populated country in the world, with over 92 million people. Because of the great number of islands there were endless miles of oceanside driving, often through unpopulated areas. My travels were mostly in the north or the Luzon division. An extensive ferry system accommodates people and vehicles as they move about the islands. The only barrier to my movement with the motorcycle was timing for ferry connections. Arriving one afternoon after the last ferry left for the day meant staying in a nearby town until the next morning, but that gave me a chance to do laundry, use an inexpensive Internet café to catch-up on email and world affairs, as well as meet several local people who were interested in my travels.

Tagalog, with slight variations, was the common language as I moved further south, but always someone spoke English and all menus, road signs and many publications were in English. US dollars were easily converted to pesos, but when a money changing place was not open or available everyone seemed to know the conversion rate for US dollars and would make a close conversion if needed. Some credit cards were accepted at better hotels and gas stations, but I later learned there was a significant “hit” for those who used their credit cards at ATMs. Cash in the form of US dollars, like many places in the rest of the world, was King.

The Eighth Wonder of the World  the Banaue rice terraces.
The Eighth Wonder of the World, the Banaue rice terraces.

One of the earlier attractions for me, when considering the Philippines as a destination, was the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the Banaue Rice Terraces. These 2,000 year old rice Terraces were in the mountains of the north of Luzon. While picturesque and unique, the coolness of the high mountains, rain, fog and two minor contacts with road bandits in the area left me unimpressed and deciding to move southward towards the hot and humid beaches.

Impressive were the unique forms of transportation. These ranged from the famous “jeepney” buses, a reflection of Filipino creativity, to the motorcycle taxis, an even more advanced expression of Filipino construction, color and inspiration.

Motorcycles were everywhere, but most were small-displacement models. This was largely due to the high import tax on larger motorcycles and the fact that no big motorcycles were manufactured in the Philippines. A new $15,000 Japanese or American imported motorcycle could easily cost the owner twice what it would in the country of origin. That did not seem to keep large motorcycles out of the Philippines entirely, as there were numerous Harley-DavidsonBMW and Honda motorcycles in the big cities, but owned by those with the economic station to support their expensive ownership.

Pictured here was a customized off-road jeepney that reflected  literally with the polished stainless steel  the owners tastes.
Pictured here was a customized off-road jeepney that reflected, literally with the polished stainless steel, the owner’s tastes.

The first trip I made to the Philippines found me carrying an unused sleeping bag and tent. Seldom did I find a campground. Sleeping rooms ranged from a simple bed with shared bath for $5 per night to a nicely appointed room with air conditioning, cable TV, private bath and sometimes free Internet from $25 and up. On my next trips to the Philippines I left the camping gear behind, carrying in only my motorcycle riding gear, tools and regular clothes. What I did not take I generally easily found, things like shampoo, towel, or writing supplies. What I did not find were well stocked motorcycle accessory shops, so riding gear and spares were what I brought with me.

Eating was as easy as any place I had traveled. Menus were in English, fast food places like Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, McDonalds and Wendy’s were around, but when not the local fare was easily ordered and palatable. What I did notice was a prevalence of gun guys in public places, heavily armed security guards. Their presence in grocery stores, restaurants, and shopping malls reminded me of parts of Central America and the need to protect cash registers and patrons from armed robbers.

The other gun guys I met were in the form of road bandits, locally called guerrillas. They were holding up vehicles passing through their turf. My contact with them was as a passerby, my choosing to pass them without stopping versus having them rob me and possibly use me as a sexual object by their younger members in the jungles for a few weeks until someone paid my ransom. I took my chances by keeping the throttle open when they expected me to slow.

Driving was on the right hand side of the road. The most common risk of crashing or threat of danger seemed to be the unusual or unexpected stopping by cars, trucks and

Like Ronald McDonald  the Jollibee welcomed guests. He took care of my helmet while I ate a hamburger  fries and drank a Coke inside the air conditioned interior. An armed security guard with a loaded shotgun made sure no one took off with my helmet.
Like Ronald McDonald, the Jollibee welcomed guests. He took care of my helmet while I ate a hamburger, fries and drank a Coke inside the air conditioned interior. An armed security guard with a loaded shotgun made sure no one took off with my helmet.

jeepneys. I learned to give any vehicle in front of me plenty of space to accommodate my stopping quickly when I noticed those ahead of me had done so.

My two dangerous driving incidents happened not as a result of my driving. One incident was from my front tire blowing out while I was passing a truck. The second was when a bus I was following ran over an oncoming motorcyclist.

The blow out was at speed and dropped me on the pavement in the left hand lane next to the truck I was passing. It was not my day to die. The car approaching from the opposite direction had enough space to swerve around me and the motorcycle as we slid towards them in their lane. The cause of the blow out was a nail, which I have saved as a reminder that sometimes dangerous things happen beyond my control, outside my risk management.

The second dangerous moment was when I was following a bus, preparing to pass. On a curve an oncoming motorcycle daredevil attempted a pass a slower truck, just over the centerline. I saw him cut across the center line and then hit the front fender of the bus I was following. Before I had much chance to realize the motorcyclist and his motorcycle were under the bus, parts of his motorcycle came out from under the rear of the bus and landed in my path. I swerved to avoid the motorcycle seat, a spinning shoe and broken motorcycle fender parts. I did not have to worry about the motorcyclist because he stayed under the bus, the rear wheels on top of him. Again, it was risk management to avoid danger that I had no control over, a harsh reminder of what can happen if one believes they can live by the motto of “Ride Fast, Live Fast.”

Along with the motorcycle under the bus was the motorcycle pilot. Ride hard  die young.
Risky motorcycle driving resulted in the motorcyclist sliding under the left front fender of this bus.

With over 7,000 islands and numerous roads on each, there was a lot left for me to explore in the Philippines. Whether I go back a fourth time depends on time and money. The advice given before my first adventure was well heeded, and the motorhead parts were beyond my expectations. The motorcycling community was friendly and helpful, as were nearly all the people I met.

If you are a snowbound motorhead adventurer in winter, not afraid to venture into jungles and away from ATM machines, worry about your language skills beyond English, like a familiar diet and want a reasonably priced adventure, the Philippines might be within your adventure circle of comfort.

For an even more colorful account of Dr. Frazier’s Philippine adventures, visit http://tinyurl.com/2sbeh5