Whilst the Philippines is known for its 7000 islands, to the north of the capital Manila lies a large mountainous area offering some great riding. If you have some spare time I’ll tell you a little about my ride there.
After my motorcycle ride in Sri Lanka I flew to Philippines to visit my mate who retired there a few years ago and spent the days playing billiards and drinking beer. It’s a good life he has here, vastly better than he could he could achieve in Australia. I hope he can continue but to access a pension living overseas is becoming difficult for Australians so I wanted to spend some time here before he needed to go home.
Beer beer. Says it all.
In a trike when I arrived. Use the Grab app to get set price ride.
I arranged to rent a Honda CRF250 from Nice Bike in Angeles city who I rented from on my ride here about four years ago. They remain basically the only large capacity motorcycle rental in the Philippines and have a number of Kawasaki ER6 based models (Ninja 650, Versys 650 and the cruiser Kawasaki based on the ER6 chassis). I think the CRF250 is ample power for Philippines and the larger wheels will work better on the mostly concrete slab roads. Angeles city lies an hour (or three depending on traffic) north of Manila and has a reputation for nightlife yet the bars are few compared to Thailand and now a small aspect of a rapidly modernizing international hub. It is also home to a very large ex-pat community from South Korea who perhaps choose to live away from the missile threats from the north.
For me this meant I could go to the Korea town and enjoy food I missed from when living in Brisbane. (which had a Korean community)
My current ride. Good machine to get around the congestion at about $5Aus a day rental and 50 peso fuel for a week of riding. You need to learn the local ways but the Philippines is easy to ride compared to Sri Lanka. I used to wonder why there was less of the very aggressive get out of my way driving here that exists in SE Asia until I realized so many people have guns and this keeps road rage in check.
Lots of guns means security staff are more armed. This is one the guards at local shopping mall where you are padded down for weapons on entry. Gas station staff have shotguns and the McDonalds evening security guard had a large caliber machine gun. But I have never had any trouble travelling the Philippines.
Last time I toured here I had too many punctures and did not complete my ride. I decided to revisit but focus on just the best roads and my mate living here upon hearing this announced he would join me which was quite a surprise but most welcome.
He booked a brand new Kawasaki Versys 300X Nice Bike have just purchased but on the day the bike was nowhere to be found. Fortunately a Kawasaki Ninja 650 was provided even though it was showing as reserved. If you are going to ride here then I suggest going to visit Nice Bike in advance of your departure day and reconfirming your reservation, maybe take the bike the afternoon before as rental is per 24 hours so that works better than collecting it in morning and gives you a bit of leeway as well. There is no need to pre-book hotels in Philippines unless it is around festive times but roads then are highly congested and best avoided.
After hot fine days it turned cool just when departing. This was a blessing on the congested roads leaving Angeles surrounded by Jeepneys pumping out heat and diesel soot. Be prepared to ride off the road on the verge and find a path forward anyway possible at times or it will take you hours to get anywhere. Look at what other riders are doing and follow suit to keep moving when things grind to halt. There are no rules other than bigger has right of way most of time however coming into a town if all the bikes are sitting diligently in the traffic then look ahead and probably spot police so bide your time until past them.
We stopped for a early lunch at Jolibee, the fried chicken fast food chain that is wildly popular in the Philippines. It’s nothing special, just cheap. A friendly trucker admiring the Honda pointed out I may have a nail in my rear tyre. Oh no, not this again. I hurried my lunch then rode off to the nearest vulcanize tyre repair shop in town. Fortunately it was merely a small tack that did not penetrate beyond the tyre to the tube so I am back on the road with little delay.
Surprise find, new rural gas station with clean toilets and karaoke!
There were a lot of military checkpoints on the roads today. We rode around the long queues of cars. Bikes are always waved on. If you ever become a fugitive travel by motorcycle.
The road from San Jose to Baler is a roller coaster with 1000 curves. Wonderful afternoon ride. Make sure you take the northern most road to Baler as shown on my map not the national park road as that is a unsealed.
The views were great too.
Many people here are living simple lives.
Baler is a small surfing town and where the famous movie Apocalypse Now was made. The scene with the helicopters attacking while playing ride of the Valkyries loudly from speakers (and the Charlie Don’t Surf and I love the smell of Napalm in the morning) were shot here in Baler not Vietnam. The waterfront now has some minor crumbling tourist development but otherwise a small town.
If you mention you are going to or went to Baler you will get blank stares from every Filipino unless you pronounce it French. Not sure why, in the land of Spanish towns, San Juan, San Fernando, San Jose this one is ‘Bel’air’.
We eventually found the only bar in town and proceeded to wash down some of the diesel soot and drown the disappointment that was tonight’s hotel. It looked nice on outside and had secure off street parking but everything was broken and neglected.
Woken by the roosters crowing next morning despite ear plugs. No need for any alarm. Welcome to the province.
We were on the road 7.30am as my mate was convinced the distance was high for Philippine roads, but I was confident I had it right. Yesterday we covered the distance very easy, leaving after 9.00am and arrived shortly before 4.00pm. But with no breakfast available it suited to get the wheels rolling.
Surprised to find a new 7/11 in the next town north… coming to a corner near you soon. Coffee and steamed dumpling bun for breakfast. This morning’s ride was along the east coast and it was nice peaceful feeling here. There were a number of small outcrops to climb via steep twisty roads and in between 1000 coconut trees.
Despite the excellent road, locals are living mostly in huts and using Carabao (water buffalo) to work fields or haul items.
The blue sky faded as we rode north then inland into mountains and there was a number of landslides being repaired which were slippery mud. The roads were nice and twisty but demanding a slow pace in the conditions. It was really bad luck as the views were totally obscured.
You know its a good ride in the dry when looking at this sign, oh well, another time.
As soon as we cleared the rain I stopped for a early lunch break. My mate has a extremely narrow range of food he will eat but we stumbled upon a bakery in middle of nowhere that was a nice.
Once down the other side of the mountains the roads dried and became fast sweepers in the afternoon and very enjoyable. Sorry did not stop for photos, I had the CRF singing and my mate was pushing to get to todays destination so I just rode on.
We chose the best looking hotel in town but it was still a dump. Oh well it had hot water and a flushing toilet so was big step up from last night and neither of us could be bothered riding further once off the bikes.
Whilst I like the Philippines the food here is of a far lesser quality compared to rest of SE Asia. No knifes here either, only spoons and forks.
Woke to rain with a breakfast I never ordered delivered at 6.50am. Oh well I was aiming for 7.00am anyway. Alas some greasy spam like meat and oily rice that I tried but just could not eat. We went for breakfast in town and contemplated the weather. The forecast suggested the now light misty rain was localized so we rode out with positive outlook. That soon turned sour.
Entering the mountains the rain increased and the conditions turned miserable as the temperature plunged. What rotten luck. This was the feature day of the tour over the highest road in Philippines and I felt gutted since no forecast of rain existed. I stopped and discussed what to do. Visibility was no more than 20 metres in heavy mist and our speed very slow but we sloshed on, the road would have been magic another time. After a couple of hours of slow going we rode down out of the clouds and stopped at a guesthouse perched over a large dam for hot coffee.
I had shoe rain covers and waterproof gloves and was mostly dry but my mate had neither and his ancient Dryrider jacket was no longer it’s namesake.
Below is the original route for today which even in the dry was ambitious. The road north is endless very tight corners with crazy steep grades. Impossible today. I plotted a new route to Baguio with 40km of corners to west then down to La Union on the coast.
I really enjoyed the ride to Baguio. The road dried and I got confident on the surface and had a lot of fun on the CRF250 which is so light compared to my FJR1300 making even the tightest corners a breeze to ride. A small light bike would open up much more of Japan to me, but I sure was cold today with no protection from the elements and Japans summer is also it’s wet season. So it’s not so clear cut.
Baguio is known for it’s cool climate and nightmare traffic. The GPS guided us past much of the later to encounter only a brief few km of gridlock before escaping the other side. I wanted to have lunch but it is such a chaotic congested place I said to hell with it.
The road from Baguio to La Union I have ridden previously but forgotten just how good it is. Perfectly surveyed hotmix sweepers that come at you in a daisy chain of riding joy. It is one of those roads that cannot be captured in a photo easy so you will have to take my word for it. Above the view west to the ocean leaving Baguio starting the descent. I stopped half way down to rest at one of the many roadside fruit stands and had a couple of bananas and cold water for lunch. Did the trick and far less calories than Jolibee.
Arriving La Union the weather was sunny and 30 degrees, what a change! My mate was really fatigued from the cold and wet today and wanted to stop at first hotel. Alas the hotel he turned into was a short time hotel or what the Japanese call a love hotel used for couples for a few hours… but also available overnight. It was another dump with no hot water and noisy but it had secure off street parking for the bikes.
I decided to phone Nice Bike and try extend the rental and ride back to the mountains tomorrow.
My mate said he was going home as he felt exhausted and so next day we parted ways after breakfast and I rode north.
I plotted a rather ambitious route for the type of roads to also ride the highest point (shown below as icon) and on to Baguio.
I was feeling very tired after the crappy hotel rooms and stopped for a energy drink and to observe life in a small town. The trikes are different everywhere you go in the Philippines with many designs and seating layouts.
There is a strong aversion to walking in Philippines. The bus stops 10 times to drop off and pick up rather than people walking to one central bus stop, same with Jeepneys. Trikes are used for even the smallest journey, motorized and even pushbike trikes for what would be a short walk. It reminded me of Steve Martin in LA Story where he drives his car next door to visit the neighbors because ‘nobody walks in this town’. Anyway I’m not knocking it, all part of the lifestyle.
At the base of the pass is Suyo and a different pace again in small rural village with some friendly people who wanted to talk to me. I have found everyone very friendly and most people speak some English which makes travel here more interesting than other parts of Asia. English is often 3rd language for most people who first speak their local dialect, then Tagalog the national language and lastly English.
Mountain people and their local language.
The Bessang Pass is a superb ride.
It runs is like this in the mountain for about 30km. At the top is a memorial to one of the most terrible land battles of the war in the Pacific. I had wanted to visit here for some time and felt pleased to have finally made it and that the memorial was kept in good order unlike some I have visited here that have been let fall into disrepair or looted which is shameful for a country that was liberated at the sacrifice of so many young lives. But I digress.
Whilst fine and hot on the approach the top was overcast and cold and the mountains ahead held ominous dark clouds.I have visited the highest point on the central range previously and know you need fine weather to go there, it is cold and very twisty roads. Reluctantly I turned back however the ride down the Bessang pass was quite rewarding. The views are much better in that direction and being in the right hand lane you can see straight over into the valley and out to the ocean at times. It flowed well downhill and again the light CRF250 worked perfectly in the tight corners. Something like this with a screen and alloy rims has to be my future motorcycle if I stay in Japan. Oh of course it would need to have a slightly wider seat too but the modest power was no problem at all.
My last day was all about getting back to where I began and I had devised a route that hopefully would give some nice riding by-passing the highway and large town traffic jams. The first 100km passed by enjoyably on curvy light traffic roads and if looking for a route north or south on a ride here then take a peek at this one on ridewithgps.com user warren.
Lots of unregistered home made side cars. Seen some fitted with plastic outdoor chairs, once I saw one that was two levels with plastic chairs on each and four passengers enjoying the ride. The OH&S nazi’s in Australia would have cardiac arrest haha.
I saw a jeepney in the mountains yesterday that had about 10 people on the roof, that would be one hell of a thrill ride on the Bessang Pass. Roof riding seems a thing in this province but not seen it much elsewhere. Seems legit.
Where shall I dry my grain? Common practice you need to keep eye out for.
Was shame to be leaving the provinces to the north, they are both scenic and interesting.
I had late lunch in the town of Concepcion. Despite not being far out of Angeles which has lots of westerners the smaller towns like this do not see tourists and again I found people very friendly and wanting to chat about my travel here.
I feel quite in the groove riding Philippines now. I was contemplating asking Nice Bike could I rent a few more days however I decided with the weather not stable in mountains it was better to think about riding here again some other time maybe next year.
Arriving back without a puncture was a relief. Having spoke wheels means a nail could cause a blowout due to sudden deflation of tube and a hassle if far from a vulcanize shop. You can always flag a trike down here and with the help of some peso arrange to get bike to nearest repair shop one way or another. Always have plenty of smaller notes when riding here should you need pay for services. I so much rather alloy wheels with tubeless tyres that slowly deflate and that you can easy plug and inflate on side of road.
I have been carrying a small can of tyre inflation goop with me since leaving Japan which would have been of no use on any of the four bikes I have ridden since, XT125, CRF250, XR200 and another CRF250 all had spokes and tubes.
Below is a map with icons showing some of the best riding roads I know of covering about 4 or 5 days riding from Angeles. Note that other adjacent roads might initially look sealed on Google street view but go further into them and at present they are dirt which in any rain becomes slippery mud. The road from Bambang north to Banaue and on to Bontoc is a decent ride but doesn’t compare to the central range that is very high with sheer drops and excellent views.
I found Open Street Maps are more accurate and better detail than the official Garmin map of Philippines.
Well I am back in the ‘big smoke’ now, literally, in the self billed ‘queen city of the south’ Cebu with some working wi-fi able to post this ride report. I am staying at a brand new Toyoko Inn hotel. A big name Japanese hotel chain that is normally a model of efficiency but in Philippines is totally screwed up. Inside the room however reminds me of the hotels in Japan so I feel like I am on my way home even if Japan itself does not feel like a real home much more than the hotels I have been living out of the last two months.
Thanks for reading.