written by: Gorio Belen
Ever since I’ve read of the daring feat of Ronnie Pasola in traveling around the country, from Aparri to Zamboanga, driving an Austin Moke, I’ve always dreamt of doing the same. There have been several other driving challenges through the years along the Pan-Philippine Highway, including a car rally race from Manila to Davao and Marlboro Tour bicycle races. Driving from Luzon to Mindanao have been made possible through the RoRo ferry crossing services in Matnog and Liloan plus the majestic bridge span linking Samar and Leyte Islands.
The plan to construct a trans-Philippine highway started as early as in the 1960s. In 1967, a team of Japanese and Filipino engineers started to survey the proposed route of this 3,500 kms highway and the actual construction started in 1970. The road was initially called the Philippine-Japanese Friendship highway since the road construction was mainly funded from a $30 million Japanese loan (P168,846,000 in the 1970 peso-dollar exchange rate of P5.6282 to $1) and a local counterpart fund of P2 billion. But it was said that many Filipinos frowned on the name and so it was changed to the Pan-Philippine Highway. In 1979, it was changed to Maharlika Highway by Pres. Marcos.
Then in Aug. 21, 1986, Philtranco initiated a historic bus run from Manila to Davao and Cagayan de Oro via the Maharlika Highway. Now, a once divided island, where travelling from Manila to Mindanao meant spending several days on an interisland ship was possible by a single bus ride. The advent of RoRo ferries also connected other parts of the country. The Strong Republic Nautical Highway was availed by other bus companies to connect Manila to other parts of the Visayas.
Seeing those buses with signboards saying Davao somehow challenged me to try a sightseeing trip. I have made initial inquiries on the bus fares, schedules and the time travel when Philtranco still had a terminal at former U/Tex factory in Marikina but somehow I never made the trip. My first interisland bus travel was way back in 1994 when I took an air-conditioned bus from Tacloban to Manila, a 24 hour travel. But what I wanted to do was a bus ride from Manila to Davao….and this was the journey that I would wish to do for years. In my first attempt, I was already at the Cubao Ali Mall terminal but a storm was hovering in the Bicol area and all the dispatchers were not sure if any trip to Tacloban was possible. And I wouldn’t want to travel on a stormy condition with a possibility of being stranded at the Matnog port. Thus I went home disappointed that my first attempt on an interisland trip failed.
Then on my second attempt I was luckier, the weather was fine, I was able to get time off work, at least for a week. And so off I went to the bus terminal in Ali Mall.
At the center of the busy commercial area of Araneta Center in Cubao, the Ali Mall Integrated Bus Terminal comes to life early in the morning as buses from the south arrive and unloads its passengers. If cities in the Visayas and Mindanao have integrated bus terminals, this is its counterpart sort of in Metro Manila. Buses mainly bound for the southern provinces depart here. At mid-morning, the terminal turn almost chaotic as activities center on the departing buses bound for the south; air-con and ordinary buses bound for Bicol, Samar, Leyte and even Iloilo. This would go on until the evening. This is where different cultures of the country mix. This was where my adventure began. (Today, the Ali Mall bus terminal has been demolished to give way to the construction of a Megaworld condominium and the bus terminal have moved to the former Rustan’s building a few meters away.)
Tuesday-May 23, 2006
I boarded the brand new Chinese-made Higer bus of Silverstar Shuttle and Tours bound for Tacloban on the morning of May 23 for the 10 o’clock departure.
Despite some delays, we left Manila and encountered a relatively moderate traffic along EDSA. But a 20 minute stopover at Silverstar’s main terminal in San Pedro, Laguna was irritating to some of the passengers (including me). It was already 11:20 when we left the San Pedro terminal and finally went into cruise speed along the South Luzon Expressway. The Silverstar’s brand new suspension made the trip very comfortable. I was seated in the rear portion of the bus (being the last passenger to check in) and beside a lady bound for Tacloban. Despite my inability to understand or speak ‘Waray’, a warm smile exchanged meant that we will be friendly seatmates for the next 24 hours. Most of the passengers were going home after a vacation in Manila. My excitement on this trip was peaking up. I only hoped for a good weather along the way and a safe trip to my destination.
As rice fields dominate the landscape of the Northern Philippines, tall and slender coconut trees line up the roadside from Batangas up to Quezon Province in the South. We arrived at Lucena at 2 p.m. and stopped at a roadside restaurant for a late lunch. Afternoon showers fell along the way as we passed by the shoreline of Gumaca. I always liked this portion of the Maharlika Highway, where the Pacific Ocean is located on your left while the mountainside is on your right.
At 5 pm, we stopped at the junction at Calauag, Quezon to refuel, indicating that this is the half way point of the bus’ journey.
By this time, the rigors of travel already started to take effect on me as I slept along the way to Bicol despite the rough and zigzagging roads. It was already 9 pm when we stopped for dinner somewhere in Bicol.
Wednesday – May 24, 2006
As we resumed our travel, I again continued my sleep until we reached the Matnog ferry terminal, the exit point from Luzon, at 1 am.
Alighting from the bus to get our ferry tickets, it was a bit inconvenient for passengers to be roused from their sleep and get down from the buses. Despite the hospitality of the local vendors who generously offered the passengers cheap but hot coffee and other snacks, being awaken at 1 am and made to fall in line to get tickets and then board the ferry is very uncomforting. But despite this, I was entertained by the sight of a long line of buses about to board the RoRo ferries. I watched with amazement as the ship’s crew direct the traffic of vehicles boarding the ferry and then securing them tight before we sail off. It was order in chaos.
In the middle of the night we boarded the MV King Frederick of the Sta. Clara Shipping Line. As soon as the passengers boarded the RoRo ferry, everyone searched the ferry for every available chair or space to grab a quick nap. The San Bernardino Strait was perfectly calm and ideal for that ferry crossing. Early morning crossings at San Bernardino Strait afforded one with a spectacular view of the sunrise. Always a pleasant way to start the day. But unfortunately that time we docked at Allen, Samar was still in darkness at 4 am.
The portion of the Maharlika Highway in Samar runs along the western coast. Roads along Samar are rough and in a sorry state of disrepair, mainly due to years of neglect. (This was in 2006 and I have read they have started to repair the roads. I do not know the present condition). We reached Calbayog City at 6 am for a breakfast stopover.
Calbayog City as well as Catbalogan features old-style pedal-powered tricycles. Unlike their noisy counterparts in Luzon, the dominant tricycles quietly lorded it over the city streets of Calbayog and Catbalogan. Always an interesting sight.
By this time half of the bus’ passengers have alighted, and most of them are now in casual conversation. I know that we were leaving Samar island once the road condition improved. Upon reaching the majestic San Juanico Bridge, I am now ending my first phase of my adventure.
We arrived in Tacloban at 12 noon. I am now in the Visayas region after 24 hours of travel. Tacloban is the capital of Leyte and is the center of trade in Eastern Visayas. This was a familiar territory for me since I had a project here years before and I have been here a couple of times in the past. I immediately went to the Philtranco terminal to inquire about the trip to Davao and I was informed that the bus from Manila was expected to arrive at 9 pm but I can not be assured of a space in the bus as it was reported to be full. (That time, there was still no integrated terminal yet)
I decided to recharge my energies in the city for the rest of the afternoon, checked into a pension house, took a bath, grabbed a meal, took a quick nap and made a short city tour to some familiar places. In the evening, after a quick dinner, I went back to the bus terminal and waited for the Philtranco bus to Davao. I was asked if I would like to ride in the non-aircon Bachelor Express that leaves earlier than 9 p.m. but I decided to stick it out with the air-con Philtranco bus (a decision I would later regret).
The Philtranco Bus arrived way past 9 pm and was full of passengers. I begged the conductor to take me in and he asked if I was willing to stand up as there was no more space even in the alley. I took the challenge and we left at 9:45 pm with me standing in the middle of the alley with people all around me. The bus was so full, there were even passengers in the cargo bay at the back and more standing at the door. I was told that there was a Boy Scout Jamboree in Davao that time so many passengers were bound for that city. (I could have taken this bus in Manila and could have assured me of a seat throughout the travel to Davao, but I chose to follow my own schedule rather than the bus’ timetable).
The drive to Liloan, the southernmost tip of Leyte was uneventful in the middle of the night despite the cramps I suffered from standing for 4 hours and not being able to sleep. That was the real adventure part of my trip. How I wished I should have taken the Bachelor bus instead.
Thursday – May 25, 2006
We reached Liloan at 2 am and was informed that the ferry will arrive at 4am. Immediately I scrambled to find a bench to sleep and rest my aching legs. Then at dawn we boarded mv Maharlika Dos for the ferry crossing to Mindanao. Again I was entertained by the sight of the buses and trucks boarding the ferry and being parked side by side with inches to spare. The RoRo ferry left Liloan at 6 am and it took four hours to cross the Surigao Strait again at a very slow pace. This ferry had served the commuters of Mindanao and Leyte for such a long time, more than twenty years. Again, calm waters afforded us an uneventful ferry crossing and I was able to get a good nap before reaching Lipata.
Lipata Ferry Terminal is the cleanest port I’ve been to in the country and arriving here early in the morning was very refreshing. At last, I was now in Mindanao and almost near my destination.
Disembarking the ferry and boarding the bus was quite efficient and quick. My fellow bus passengers were now anxious as they were now near their various destinations and they have been on the road for 2 days already. I finally managed to get a seat in the bus and I started to enjoy again the local sceneries along the highway. The road from Surigao to Butuan was relatively in good condition. We stopped for lunch at R.T. Romualdez town.
We arrived at Butuan City at 2pm and when we left it, the bus was half empty. The road to Davao in my earlier travels was very rough with the highway full of huge craters. But the roads have improved since then and now travelling on this part of the Maharlika Highway was very pleasant. By this time, the Philtranco bus seemed to stop at every town before Davao to drop off each passenger.
At Monkayo, Compostela Valley, we had an early dinner at 6pm. As we reached Tagum City, Davao del Norte, we were just about five passengers remaining in the bus. The Philtranco bus finally reached Davao at 9 pm, almost a 24 hour trip for me coming from Tacloban and a two day trip for those who boarded from Manila. For most of the remaining passengers, they were still find connecting bus rides to other provinces in Mindanao but for me, it’s time to find a nice hotel.
I settled in at the Bagobo House Hotel along Duterte st. in downtown Davao, a hotel that I used to check in before. Unfortunately, a boy scout jamboree was happening during that week so all of the regular rooms were occupied and so I was offered the suite. At P1000 a night, it was still a bargain. Their regular single room rate is P620/night could have saved me some bucks but I was too tired to go around the city to look for a cheaper room.
Davao’s nightlife is a clone of Manila’s. It offers a variety of entertainment. There are karaoke bars as well as live band music venues for music lovers. Numerous restaurants catered to satisfy different tastes. Malls also abound. But that night I was just too tired to go out and this was my first chance to rest on a comfortable bed and have a decent rest. So at 11 pm I was already asleep.
Friday – May 26, 2006
On the fourth day of my trip, instead of returning to Manila, I decided to take a bus to Cagayan de Oro via the BuDa (Bukidnon-Davao) road which I have heard so much from my Mindanaoan friends before. I boarded a brand new Rural Transit bus bound for Cagayan de Oro and we left at 9:30 am. The ride was pleasant all throughout as the BuDa road was well paved.
Upon reaching the provincial boundary of Bukidnon we were all asked to board down and pass through a foot bath while the bus underside was sprayed with disinfectant. The province of Bukidnon has been strictly enforcing this measure to prevent the entry of foot and mouth disease that may ruin their cattle and animal industry.
The zigzagging roads of BuDa highway offered a breathtaking view of Davao City mountain ranges. This reminded me of my father’s stories of how they evacuated from Davao to Cagayan de Oro on foot at the onset of WWII. He said that they walked the mountain jungles for days, surviving on what they can eat along the forests of Davao del Norte (which I imagined to be very lush then). How I wish that he was still alive today so that I could have taken him along on this trip and retrace their evacuation route.
We arrived at exactly noon in Quezon, Bukidnon and had our lunch there. And for the following towns thereafter, we would be stopping for every 30 minutes to pick up and unload passengers. At 1 pm we were at Maramag, Bukidnon. I have been to Maramag once before so I was amazed at the remarkable improvement.
We arrived at Malaybalay at 2:30pm. About 10 years ago, when I went to this place, the highway was still mainly gravel road. Malaybalay is home of the famous Benedictine Monastery of Transfiguration which has a very good boy’s choir. The monks there also plant coffee which they sell to guests and the abbey also has the last work of National Artist Architect Leandro Locsin, the monastery’s chapel.
We finally arrived in Cagayan de Oro, under a slight drizzle, at 4:30 pm. and immediately I checked in at Pearlmont Inn in nearby Limketkai Mall. The rooms are clean and the rate was relatively cheap. I did some “malling” in nearby Limketkai forgetting that SM already had a mall near Lumbia. I was eating mall food again just like what I usually do in Manila. Cagayan de Oro was another familiar territory as I have been to this place numerous times before and had a number of projects here before. I also had a couple of friends here so it was nice to catch up with them.
By this time, I have reached the halfway point of my trip and it was now time to get head back to Manila.
Saturday – May 27, 2006
I decided to take the route via Butuan on my return trip. Initially I tried to get a ride at a local air-con van but departure was only when it was already full of passengers. But since filling up the van took a long time, I decided to board a Butuan bound Bachelor bus instead. The bus departed the terminal at 10 a.m.
The highway eastward from Cagayan de Oro runs along the coastline so the view is refreshing. We arrived in Villanueva, Misamis Oriental at 10:45am and had a short stopover at its common bus terminal. At 11:15am, we made the next stopover in Balingasag. Lunchtime was in Balingoan at exactly noon. At 1 pm we stopped at Gingoog City and 58 minutes later we were at Nasipit.
We arrived in Butuan City at 2:30pm. I changed bus here and took a Bachelor bound for Surigao City. I wondered why there was no direct bus trip from Cagayan de Oro to Surigao but nevertheless I took the chance to do a quick tour of the city during my stopover. We departed at 3 pm. From Butuan the highway from Cagayan de Oro to Surigao City is well paved so travel was comfortable. Upon arriving at the Surigao integrated terminal after a two hour trip, I boarded a multicab bound for Lipata ferry terminal. I arrived at the Lipata terminal at dusk and had plenty of time to rest from my day-long travel since the ferry was scheduled to depart at 10 pm yet. How I wished I had the information at the Surigao terminal so that I could have toured the city proper that evening. It seemed that not everyone knew of the ferries’ schedule or that the ferries had not regular schedule.
Anyway, the Lipata terminal building, despite its age, is still clean and well-maintained. Waiting for the RoRo ferry’s arrival, I had time to reflect on my travel. This leg of my travel has debunked the myth of most Luzon residents that travelling around Mindanao is quite dangerous due to rebels of various orientations. On the contrary, I found the Northeastern part of Mindanao peaceful.
We boarded a Maharlika RoRo ferry and departed Lipata at 10:30 pm. As soon as we boarded the ferry, we looked for a good seat to sleep. The passengers were quite few so there was plenty of space to look around. The slow speed of the RoRo ship and calm waters made the ferry crossing comfortable and again uneventful. This time, I was able to get a good sleep, despite lying flat in the chairs.
Sunday – May 28, 2006
We arrived at Liloan at 2:30 am. I was back in island of Leyte. I took a van for Tacloban outside the ferry terminal and we departed at 3 am. Since there was nothing to see in the dark, I slept most of the way to Tacloban. I was only awakened when we made a stopover in Bato at 4:30 am.
I arrived in Tacloban at 7 am at took a quick breakfast. Then I took a van for Calbayog City. I planned to make a stopover in Calbayog to see a former officemate. Again I experienced the indescribable rugged roads of Samar. I was in Calbayog at noon and quickly contacted my friend and decided to spend the night in Calbayog. My former officemate and I had a grand time catching up with each other.
Monday – May 29, 2006
Instead of boarding a bus bound for Manila, I departed from Calbayog at 9 am aboard a local jeep bound for Allen. I planned to make many stopovers along the way.
At 11:30am I was in Allen pier and after the usual process of falling in line to buy tickets, we boarded the RoRo ferry, the mv King Frederick again (the same ferry I rode from Matnog to Allen earlier). We departed at 1pm. This time I was able to enjoy the view from the ferry’s side. I also watched my co-passengers do their regular “ferry crossing things.” A female pedicurist was going around the ship and must have a good earning as she had many costumers. A lady beside me fed her son with home cooked adobo which I know for sure is very delicious. Some passengers enjoyed viewing a female volleyball game on the ship’s TV. While some took the chance to get a nice afternoon nap, others enjoyed the cool sea breeze by the ferry’s railings.
We docked at Matnog at 2:30 pm. Happily, I was in back in Luzon soil as soon as I saw the arch at the Matnog port entrance that welcome the travelers. Outside the port, I boarded a jeep bound for Sorsogon. I did enjoy this leg of my travel since at last I saw the scenic countryside of Sorsogon in daytime (most of my passing through in this area was at night). Passing by Irosin, I was reminded of my high school teacher who hailed from this town and who always told us of stories about his place. I was planning to spend the night in Sorsogon but since it was still early I decided to board a van for Daraga. At Daraga, I boarded another van bound for Naga and we left the terminal at 6 pm. Arriving at the new Naga central terminal at 8:30 pm, instead of spending the night in that city as I initially planned, I was talked into boarding Gold Line bus that was about to depart at 9 pm by its dispatcher. Maybe because I was already too tired of my travelling and I was really aching to go home. After a quick dinner at the terminal’s restaurant, I took my seat in the bus and settled in for the long trip. Surprisingly, I did have a good sleep on the bus.
Tuesday – May 30, 2006
When I woke up, we were already speeding along the South expressway. EDSA traffic was still light and we arrived at the Ali Mall terminal at 6 am. One final ride to my home on that cool morning and finally I was in the comfort of my bed at 7 am.
After sleeping half of the day, I reflected on my travel for the past week. I have finally achieved my dream of inter-island travel. The Pan Philippine highway or Maharlika highway is a major link through the regions (except probably for the Samar portion) The RoRo ferries also had a great hand in connecting the various islands and making travel by car (or bus) from Manila to Davao (or even Zamaboanga) possible.
I was also glad I have seen the beauty of our countryside. There are indeed many beautiful places to see and go to in the Philippines. I have also felt the warmth and hospitality of my countrymen, despite the language barrier. I have learned that there are areas in Mindanao and the Visayas that is safe to travel on, contrary to the opinion of some (mostly from Luzon). I was asked by a friend if I would ever do it again. I said, “definitely” as there are more places to go and see in our country.