Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Mountain biking in the Philippines

The Philippines might not be one of the greatest paradises on Earth, and maybe its one of the last places you might think to go mountain biking given the talk of terrorists and communists. But having lived in Batangas Province for almost a year, I can tell you that the perceptions might discourage you from taking a well-worth trip. Over the years I have been to the Philippines numerous times, firstly for work, for holidays, as transits. On this occasion I came to meet my new GF. If you are interested in better understanding the Filipino people see my blog Understanding People at Having arrived and performed some biking I can offer the following info.

1. Climate: Choose your seasons wisely, as it often rains heavily in the wet season, and the 'wet' differs for different parts of the country. There is basically a east-sloping diagonal dividing the country between Summer wet (Sep-Oct) and Winter wet (???). The constraint ranges from widespread flooding to wet boggy tracks that prevent progress. The temperature is similar all year its cooler in the wet, drier in the cooler kind of balanced. The intensity of sunshine is constant all year, as you would expect for the tropics. Those areas with a little elevation like Antipolo, Batangas and northern Luzon offer an even more pleasant riding climate.
2. Bike Supplies: I purchased a bike from a vendor in Paranaque, Manila for P10,000 ($US200). They built the bike for me, but did a poor job of it. The peddles were improperly threaded so one fell off. They used poor quality components, so my 8th gear on the back wheel fell off. Basically they used an incompatible 7-gear Taiwanese sproket where there should have been a 8-year Shimano gearset...and made up the difference with a plastic spacer, which broke off ....after just 1month of use. Outside of Manila there are alot of bike shops in the main towns because bikes are everywhere. So I've since spent P3,000 ($60) on parts. I found the bike shop in Lipa very reliable, but there is not the range available in Lipa. Understand most Filipinos are less than 5ft tall, so you need a market place which offers a reasonable choice of frames.
3. Accommodation: There are hotels and guest houses all around the Philippines offering basic accommodation for P250-750 ($5-15/night), cheaper for groups. Its not safe to camp out unless you are in a large group. There are people everywhere, as the country retains a strong agricultural base and squatting is rife. These are poor people and attitudes differ towards foreigners.
4. Dangers: Its pretty safe as long as you are in the public eye. Some vendors will ilicit money or personal relaitonships with you, attempting to lure you into alley ways so they can steal from you. Though such naked ambition is more common in the cities. In rural areas, there are poor communities which harbour dangerous groups, so avoid them. If you happen to ride into the wind, you have a good chance of smelling them because they dont have basic provisions for basic septic/sanitation services. Basically they bury it where it falls, and have a rubbish tip close to their camps. If you are riding on-road avoid hit and runs by remaining in groups. I prefer riding into incoming traffic so at least I have a chance. And generally I prefer to stay off the main roads. I have found that there are good & bad districts in or around any city, and you can gauge that from the attitudes you confront. Basically its best to travel in groups or otherwise join a . If you are interested in a group ride maybe I can help organise one.
5. Routes: There are no formal routes in the Philippines to my knowledge, though there are established biking groups with an online presence. Probably rich kids so they just might have a GPS to log tracks of prior routes. I've always liked to do my own exploring, so I'm more of a supplier than a user. The great aspect of the Philippines is that the whole countryside - topography permitting - is very open. Filipinos are not so hung up on property rights like the West so I've never had a problem passing through properties and there are not so many fences to restrict your travels, though it pays to ask if you confront people. I have never been refused. But it can't hurt to avoid such interaction for safety reasons if you confront groups because some people are very provocative and anti-American, and trust me anyone 'black or white' is American.
6. Trip Preparation: Its one thing to suggest that there are alot of trails and few obstructions, but its another thing to tie those tracks into a continuous trail. In some countries there is a well defined trail. In the Philippines the trails tend to lead off in many directions, whether to houses or villages or paddocks. Afterall their trails are used for transport or walking, not for recreational touring. Unfortunately there is little you can do to solve this problem since Google Map resolution is not good enough to determine a track route, so trial & error is the only sure method. I would suggest using a GPS set destination to keep you targeted at interim destinations or waypoints. I recorded my waypoints as bus stop points on the route from Manila, that way I could be assured if I had a problem with my bike I could get it back to my home, as well as ensuring that I found pre-establishing eating or accommodation points.
7. Support: I dont know why Filipinos are so indifferent to others, but I found them to be less than helpful. Its not something specific to foreigners, nor is it English, because they seem to treat other Filipinos with similar disdain. This is poor Filipinos...the more money they have the kinder they are. There is a strong class hierarchy here so I think its testimony to class resentment. For this reason its difficult to count on any advice given, so I would be inclined to get a 2nd opinion. If your bike breaks down or you get lost and you want to get to some waypoint (landmark best, eg. McDonalds) in a hurry, consider flagging down a tricycle. They are used by Filipinos as a very attractive mode of transport. Basically you will pay about P4/km. I carried my bike on a tricycle by holding the bike frame through the back-window of the tricycle compartment.
8. Roads: Filipinos dont give much regard for road rules, and the police even less. They dont enforce, and they drive 30km/h faster than everyone else and overtake haphazardly. So you need to look at whats coming...on your side of the road...and watch all those kids playing on the roads. In the countryside its better. I think it is unwise to ride on the roads. It would not be prudent to even ride of the tollway curbing since cars use that for overtaking lanes as well....even if its illegal. Basically its safe off-road.
9. Scenery: I dont think the Philippines is a terribly scenic country as far as natural beauty, though there is still alot I havent see. There are special areas though which are worth a look, eg. Tagaytay, Tayabas, Boracay. There seems to be little natural forest protected and the beaches are mostly grey or rocky. Communities are not attractive either - either barracaded garrisons or untidy traditional housing with poorly kept gardens. There is alot of little. Once you get out in more rural areas its more beautiful. You can see lovely scenes like coconut plantations with mountain backdrops. Unfortunately you have to get away from the main roads to have those experiences because anywhere there are main roads or people, there is pollution.
10. People: I think the Filipino people are amongst the nicest I have met, and I've been to many countries. Kind of feel uncomfortable refusing their offers of food when you see what they eat...just dont trust their food preparation they have alot more resilience to their diseases than I do...already had my fair share of intestinal cramps and diarhorea. The other point is that I dont think much of Filipino cooking....alot of it looks like a brown slurry. But there are some really nice dishes as well. As far as the dangerous people are concerned, well I guess they might be inclined to kill you for P500. Basically they dont do much research before committing a felony...basically its....he's a foreigner....must be loaded....lets get his wallet. Having said that I've biked around alone without incident....just alot of smart comments...but many more friendly ones - particularly kids are always pleasant.
11. City biking: I have no stomach for riding in the city...any city...Its too congested, too polluted and the roads are shocking. Stick to the trails is my suggestion. The reason is that emission standards are not enforced in the Philippines, so the plethora of trucks and tricycles on the road make the experience very unpleasant.

I have so far only biked around Batangas province, but driving around I dont see any evidence to suggest that other provinces of the Philippines are any different. In conclusion, biking is one of the activities I like because I dont have to worry about accommodation, obstacles...the trails are in really good condition, because basically they use them daily as walking and bike trails to get to school, shops. The issue is developing a alot of trial and error if you dont have a guide. I like the exploring myself.
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