If ever I imagined paradise, the place I pictured was Siargao.

I didn’t start there. I started in the smoggy, cramped metropolis of Manila – streets fringed by flashing billboards and beggars slowly shifting tired eyes to yours. The congestion in the capital city of the Philippines is out of control, cars beeping in frustrated stillness for hours on end and stretches that should take half an hour taking four. It was hot and damp and I was relieved to get the heck out of there.

I headed north to the beachside town of San Juan, La Union. It’s a difficult place to explain. Hints of southeast Asian chaos, spiced with remnants of Spanish colonial rule and threaded into a tapestry of tricycles, palm trees and spicy food.

It’s funny how much the modes of transport define the character of a place. Post-Spanish colonialism and attempts of liberation by the Filipinos, it was the Americans that held occupancy of the 7000 plus islands until the end of World War Two. When they departed, among other things, they left their war vehicles – thousands of them – silver, bull nosed trucks that have since had bling added and varieties of religious symbolism smeared on their sides to become a major form of local transport.

WWII trucks, the ideal get around | Photo by Lucy Small @saltwaterpilgrim

It’s a trip seeing these trucks cramped in the streets - 10 pesos for a ride and filled to the brim with Filipino women - like something that has driven straight out of a wormhole linked to 1945. Many things were like this in La Union – the one armed Jesus statue on the water’s edge at the right hand point break of Car-rille and the flat roofed Spanish style buildings stacked on top of each other and packed full of strange artefacts and somehow used as a restaurant.

I was in La Union for the Single and Unattached contest – an event that started five years ago by a guy called Buji – the man at the heart of traditional long boarding in the Philippines. As the name suggests the contest is surfed entirely on single fins without leg ropes, and was held at the long, reeling right-hander that is watched sedately by the fractured Jesus statue.

The first day dawned big and clean, rockabilly notes skittering across the shallow reef ledge and toes found noses for hundreds of metres on end. It was a wild event, fueled by burritos, San Miguel and coffee made by some of the best baristas in the entire archipelago.

Contest creator Buji. So much heart involved | Photo by Tim Haine @tim_asc

Perfect Points | Photo by Tim Haine @tim_asc

One armed Jesus, ever watchful | Photo Lucy Small

I didn’t win, it was close and many an island rum later the whole thing was a blur and I was on a lightweight aeroplane bound for the outer, southeast island of Siargao (pronounced shargow). I nearly missed my connecting flight, I checked in at the same time of departure, leaving my surfboards on the floor of the check-in line as a tiny girl dressed in yellow raced me through airport. It was windy when we landed and raining fat monsoonal drops, palm trees leaning in over the edge of the runway. Already I knew that I’d stumbled upon paradise.

I stayed in a hostel made out of grass in General Luna, the village that faces the somewhat well known left-hander, Cloud Nine. When eventually the rain let up I drove west on my rattley motorbike, massive descents into valleys of thick, dark palm trees greeted me and thin winding tracks heavy with mud, among huts and more coconut palms, eventually lead to white beaches and reefy left hander after reefy left lander.

Jungle Kids | Photo by Lucy Small

Man rides cow in amazing scenery. Standard Siargao | Photo by Lucy Small @saltwaterpilgrim

I surfed on my single fin until my arms could no longer move. Eventually, as the reef exposed itself out of the low tide, I shared food with the locals cooked on a barbecue behind someone’s hut. I then drove on, waving as kids screamed at me, dipping into puddles and pulling up at empty, perfect beaches. Tiny islands were littered along the whole coast and often only a solo fisherman or a man riding his pushbike occupied some of the most delightful ocean playgrounds.

The further I went, the better it seemed to be.

Eventually I returned to General Luna to drink more rum and disappear into the night. My flight got cancelled and for a minute I thought I’d be stuck there forever. Until it got un-cancelled and I was shuddering out of there on what might be the smallest plane I have ever been on.

Palm trees anyone? The most palm trees I have ever seen compressed into a small land mass | Photo Lucy Small

Paradise Porn | Photo by Lucy Small @saltwaterpilgrim

Fringe dwelling, Siargao | Photo Lucy Small @saltwaterpilgrim

The Philippines seemed like a kind of hidden gem. An often overlooked element of the standard south east Asian travel experience, but a far less crowded, cheaper and more beautiful alternative to somewhere like Thailand or Indo, the islands named after the old King of Spain (Phillip) are definitely worthy of your attention. The biggest difficulty seems to be deciding where to go, with quite literally thousands of options at your disposal. But, wherever you do go, the Filipino people are guaranteed to offer you the biggest grins you have ever encountered and the only people that really seem like they can be bothered trying to rip you off are the taxi drivers in Manila.

So, pack your sunscreen, book a flight to vanilla Manila and the world is your oyster. Or the Philippines are you halo halo.


See more of Lucy's adventures here.

Quintessential pensive old man | Photo by Lucy Small @saltwaterpilgrim

High stress | Photo Lucy Small @saltwaterpilgrim

Photo Lucy Small @saltwaterpilgrim