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A river runs below it

Trained national park staff run paddle boats loaded with tourists on a tour of the underground river

Trained national park staff run paddle boats loaded with tourists on a tour of the underground river

Named one of the new Seven Wonders of Nature last November, the Puerto Princesa subterranean river is full of enchanting mysteries

As the plane engines rev up and I mentally wave farewell to Bohol, it occurs to me that nowhere in the Philippines can possibly be better maintained than this pristine island. Our next stop is Palawan and we are travelling there via Manila. Palawan is quite well known and I'm expecting it to be another Cebu. Ironically, just as Cebu and Palawan are jostling for top spot in my mental hall of fame, a stylish lady, escorted by a flight attendant, appears just across the aisle. She's introduced to our group as Gwendolyn Garcia, the governor of Cebu.

"You should come to Cebu next time," says Garcia, as if she's been reading my mind.

After lunch at the newly opened Resorts World Manila, we board an afternoon flight to Puerto Princesa, the capital of Palawan. With time to spare before dinner, Berlin Montemayor, a young guide with impressive English and training in life saving skills at sea, takes us to a WWII hellhole called Plaza Cuartel and the Immaculate Conception Church nearby. The underground chamber under the plaza, Montemayor tells us, is where 143 American PoWs were burned alive by the Japanese on December 15, 1944. The Japanese tricked the PoWs into the tunnel telling them there would be an air raid. Then they tossed in dozens of petrol drums and bombs. Boom! From Corregidor to Palawan, the wartime Japanese are well documented at different memorials as natural-born devils.

Dinner is a far more cheerful affair, hosted by Puerto Princesa's mayor Edward S Hagedorn. A cross between charming actor and influential tycoon, the charismatic Hagedorn is surprisingly down to earth and a very popular politician.

The environment is at the centrepiece of Palawan's development. Over the last 20 years, he's planted two million trees, stopped all nickel, gold and other precious stone mining activities, banned cyanide and other illegal fishing as depicted in the Filipino film "Muro Ami" ("Reef-Hunters") and passed legislation that guarantees zero litter on the streets through his "Operation Cleanliness".

"We wanted to bring development to Palawan, but the environment needs to be well protected. It's a pity it's my last year. Miners have been waiting for 20 years," says Hagedorn, adding, "I want Thais to see the natural wonders Palawan has to offer."

The mayor sounds sincere, and locals and foreigners love him. John Gray, who I meet over another dinner, is one of his fans. Gray runs an ecotourism and sea canoe business in Phuket where he's known affectionately as ling yai (big monkey) and is in Palawan for a month shooting a documentary for the National Geographic channel, which he will also host.

"Palawan is an ideal model for ecotourism and sustainable development for Thailand. Where else would you find a street without a single cigarette butt and candy wrapper," says Gray.

Palawan is known for its wonders of nature: wildlife watching, jungle trekking and mangrove forest tours, as well as adventure caving and white sand beaches. The next morning, we're off to Palawan's most famous one: the underground river. The Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park is 76 kilometres northwest of Princesa City, facing the South China Sea. After an hour's bus ride to the town of Sabang, it's another 30-minute boat ride, which is fun. There's a tiny rainstorm as we leave the shore and the presence of our same guide ensures safety. Declared a Unesco World Heritage Site and dubbed one of the new seven wonders of nature, the underground river is easily navigable up to 4.3 km of its 8.2 km stretch and is reputed to be the longest navigable underground river in the world.

Well-trained park staff run paddle boats that take visitors on a 45-minute tour of the cave to explore different rock formations that fire up our imagination: dragon, chocolate, guardian angel, lion and crocodile. Illuminated by the single flashlight, the millions of bats and swiftlets inhabiting the cave remain calm and undisturbed. The highlight is the only fossil of a bird protruding from a wall. There are plenty of photo ops, but lighting is a problem, and the atmosphere is so sleep inducing that some of group actually find themselves dozing off.

Out of the cave, we go on a jungle trail to explore the park's flora and fauna. The park is home to hundreds of species of birds, mammals and reptiles such as the cockatoo, peacock pheasant, hornbill, the bearcat, the scaly ant-eater and the small clawed otter. Peckish long-tailed macaques join us, eagerly snatching bags of potato chips and coke cans from our hands.

The trip to the underground river is a refreshing start to the day. And the mayor insists we should see more of Palawan's natural wonders in the coming days.

_ The writer travelled courtesy of the Philippines Department of Tourism and Philippine Airlines.



If you go

Palawan is in the central Philippines and can be reached by air and boat. If visiting from overseas, you can fly to Manila or Cebu. Philippine Airlines flies daily from Manila to Puerto Princesa. Flight time is about 75 minutes. Check www.PhilippineAirlines.com.




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