There are two ways to get here, a twelve hour bus journey or a fifty minute plane ride. I did both for the experience. The bus is far from comfortable but you do get to see some Filipino life along the way. However, the best time to leave Manila is in the evening to avoid the rush hour and so you only get to see things out of the window in the early morning. The plane is obviously much quicker and more comfortable but make sure you book a fair while ahead to make sure you get a seat.
It was while watching the TV news on the bus that I first heard Taglish, a mixture of Tagalog, the national lingua franca, and English. It’s a fascinating example of code switching if linguistics is your bag. Many educated Filipinos will drop into it with ease when it’s easier to use shorter English words than the longer local equivalents.
Weather wise I chose the wrong time of year to come as rain showers and thunderstorms are still pretty frequent in September.
The most stunning thing about the area is the huge perfectly formed live volcano, Mt Mayon, whose lower slopes I climbed one morning (see next post).
Way Way (Intermediate C-), Penaranda St (closed Sunday).
Recommended as the best place in town to taste Bicol food by Lonely Planet, the hotel receptionist and my taxi driver, it sadly fell very short of my admittedly high expectations. It’s one big room that could potentially seat 130 on orange chairs at tables covered by dirty pale green tablecloths with the radio as the only entertainment.
There’s a counter with about ten cauldrons of precooked dishes that are served up buffet style but paid for individually. There was also some meat and seafood that looked like it had been grilled several hours ago. Two old ladies, a family and three very young waitresses were the only people in the place for the ninety minutes I was there (Friday night).
Things got off to a bad start when they told me there was only one single bottle of decent beer in the whole restaurant, and that was unchilled and had to be put in a glass with ice. After that was gone I had to settle for San Miguel Light, which was 5% but low calorie and tasteless (C).
The best of the dishes I had her was Bicol Express, pork cooked with green pepper and red chillies (C+).
The Pinangat, (known as Laing in Manila) which mainly consists of steamed taro. pork and coconut milk in parcels made of Taro leaves, topped with grated coconut and bound together with strips of coconut palm leaf was ok but nothing special (C).
Kare Kareng, (Ox tail stew) which managed to combine being tasteless and gruesome looking at the same time with huge lumps of cartilage and vertebrae and hardly any meat (D) floating in a brown sauce made with peanut butter. The prescribed addition of Bagu-o shrimp paste just made it worse in my opinion (D). I actually preferred the veggie version I had in Manila.
The clear Clam Soup was a new experience and wasn’t too bad (C) and the miniscule but very sugary Leche Flan (B-) calmed my raging sweet tooth (B) but all-in-all this was a pretty disappointing culinary experience. I’m sure these dishes would be much better home cooked but the jury is out on Bicol food for me. Gracelands below does the same dishes and seems much more popular with the locals albeit in a fast food kind of way.
This is a combined bakery and fast lunch outlet recommended by the hotel receptionist after I turned Way Way down as a suggestion. You order your meal combo (rice, pickled veg, soda or Nestea), take a number and wait till it’s brought to your table. The first time I had a dish (forgot the name sorry) which involved a pork chop and steamed taro leaves with coconut (B-).
On a separate occasion I had the Pinangat/Liang where the pork had been removed and grilled separately on a skewer and coated with a sweet sauce while the rest of the curry was served in a (very) small patty. I think they thought I couldn’t handle the heat and gave me one tiny sliver of chilli which was very powerful, but it would have been nice to have more. It all tasted good but the portions were tiny (B-).
One of two branches, this is the one in the centre of town while the other is in the outskirts. I went back a couple of times as they had a few dishes I wanted to try.
Also kind of interesting for it’s history, though less so for it’s taste (C+), was the Garlicky Pork Adobo. Originally in Spain it was a way of preserving various meat in a vinegar and paprika marinade. When the Spanish invaded the Philippines they saw the local habit of stewing meat with vinegar, soya sauce and garlic and also called it Adobo, although the process is very different.
My favourite thing here though was the Sili ice-cream. ‘Sili’ means chilli in tagalog and this came garnished with a hot pepper. It was a great combination of spicy heat and soft creamy coldness (A), perhaps my favourite food discovery in the Philippines
Another interesting flavour was the Tinutong ice-cream (B). Tinutong is a sweet porridge made with coconut cream, glutinous rice and toasted mung beans, but here they have found some way to make it into ice-cream.
Well, other than the sweets, I wasn’t too big on the food here, although I’m sure someones mum can prove me wrong. With that in mind I’d like to thank Wesley who suggested I visit his family’s hometown. The hike up Mayon alone definitely made the trip worthwhile. More of that next…