Our first trip to the Philippines was incredible. We spent 3 weeks on Palawan Island, visiting El Nido, Port Barton, and Puerto Princesa. We loved the people, the beaches, and the country and really wanted to go back. For our second trip to the Philippines, we didn’t have a whole lot of time and we were looking for a vacation which just included lots of swimming, eating, and relaxing. After some online research, we decided on Matabungkay in the Batangas Region.
We wanted to avoid spending an overnight in Manila. Vacation time is valuable and we wanted to wake up on a beach. On our previous trip, we stayed a night in Manila, then had to get up the next day, get back to the airport, and get our domestic flight to Palawan Island. This ended up being two whole days just traveling and we were exhausted by the time we arrived at our hut in Port Barton. After checking flights to Manila from Beijing, we found the same situation would happen this time because all the flights landed in the evening. Instead we looked into beaches as close to Manila as possible and came up with Matabungkay.
Batangas, being only 130km from the city, is kind of a weekend holiday spot for Manila locals. There are tons of vacation homes and hotels and lots of recreational things to do there. Between Manila and Batangas are two huge lakes; Laguna de Bay and Lawa ng Taal. Both of these spots are ringed by hotels. A person could, feasibly just show up in this area and find a place that looks nice to stay in. Many of these little guest houses are not online, and the budget traveler would be able to find a great deal in person.
It was a two to three hour drive to Matabungkay by car from Manila airport. We had a lovely guy who I found online pick us up at the airport and take us straight to the hotel then take us back to Manila at the end of the trip. He quoted us 4150 Pesos each way (we bumped it to 5 though after he waited more than an hour for our delayed flight). His name is Resty Ramirez and he responds to emails quickly (restyramirez at yahoo dot com). The hotels can also arrange a car for you, ours quoted me 5000 Pesos each way. There are also public buses if you are so inclined.
There is nothing around Matabungkay. The closest town is Lian and it is not more than a few blocks and a few churches. It is a 20 minute motorcycle taxi or jeepney ride away. After Lian is a larger town of Nasugbu which has a bit more going on, some supermarkets, restaurants and fast food places. The hotel will also arrange a car for you for a small fee starting at about 250 Pesos. Pro-tip do not use a local money change place. The one in Matabungkay were killing us off at a rate of 5 pesos to 1CNY, when we got to the Western Union branch in Nasugbu, we got a rate of 7 to 1. Watch out. Side note though, other than the terrible exchange rate, we never felt ripped off or cheated in the Philippines.
We selected our hotel based on Trip Advisor reviews and went with Coral Beach Club. We loved the hotel and we stayed for our whole trip, 9 nights. The room was really lovely, great value for money and the staff were amazing. One time, I left my wet swimmers and towel in the sink to wash after a day at the beach, when I returned to my room after lunch, the room service staff had washed and hung my clothes! All of the staff at the hotel were so lovely, genuine and amazing.
The rooms seemed to vary quite a lot, we paid a little extra for a nice room and were happy we did, our room was called Wack-Wack (which by the arm flapping made by the adorable front desk girl, I assume is the noise a duck makes in The Philippines). Our room was one of only 2 where the windows open directly onto the ocean though all rooms are only a few steps from the beach. The pool certainly can get a bit annoyingly noisy in the mornings when rude parents send their half-dozen children out to scream at each other unsupervised at 5:45am. At night on the busier days, the pool and lounge area also became a social spot and people sit right outside your door, talking and drinking till way after midnight. We were lucky that we stayed 9 nights, so we did have some quiet times when we felt like the only people in the small hotel. The room itself though was lovely, totally clean, very comfy, huge bed, good bathroom and the TV even had extensive satellite channels for down time.
Whenever I travel I almost never eat in the hotel I’m staying at. Street food in SE Asia is the best and normally eating at a new place every day is one of the best things about a trip. The Philippines is a weird place for food. Filipinos will hate me for saying this, because I know they take a lot of pride in their cuisine, but, the food in the Philippines is terrible (sorry, don’t hate me!) I don’t know what happened, but between the colonization by the Spanish, then the Americans, and the Japanese, they seem to have lost all the best flavours of Asia into a muddle of confused cuisine. Wherein other countries in the vicinity have freshness, lemongrass, lime, spices, and unique herbs, The Philippines seems to focus on mayonnaise, cream sauces, canned meats, and sweet bread. On our first trip, we struggled to find anything good to eat and eventually got horrible food poisoning that lasted 3 months.
Coral Beach Clubs is owned by a British guy, and the restaurant has some clear colonial touches. Bangers and mash, chicken cordon bleu, full English breakfast, meat pies and even Vegemite toast. There is a huge Filipino section too as well as pizzas, pastas, curries and just so much to choose from. When we came back from a fishing trip with our catch, the kitchen cleaned and fried up our fish for us and served them with a garlic fried rice. Food prices at the hotel range from 200 to 600 Pesos a dish (US$4 to $12). The most expensive things being chili prawns and lamb shanks in the $15 range. We ended up eating almost 3 meals a day there as there is NOTHING else in the town of Matabungkay to eat, other than a few dodgy BBQ places hawking questionable, unrefrigerated fish and meat. We loved that they never gave us a bill, so for 9 days we just ate and drank as we wanted and then paid it all at the end of the trip, good for the hotel too because we sure did get lost in a sea of beers without thinking twice about what we were going to have to pay. But even after all that time, eating and drinking anything we wanted, the bill was super reasonable.
What To Do There
Matabungkay is a tiny town, you can walk the length of it. This is not the place you go to if you want bars, nightlife, dining, shopping, and activities. This is purely a tiny, chill, mini-holiday place. Activities are limited to visiting the single 7 Eleven for beers, swimming at the beach, renting a raft to relax on for the day, renting a boat to take you fishing and snorkeling, and there are jetskis to rent as well.
The snorkeling is just okay. It is not Palawan, not Boracay. This is some very worn out coral and very few fish. There is also a ton of plastic and other trash on the ocean floor. But the water is crystal clear and it was nice to get small boats to take us out away from the beach where we could jump off and snorkel alone and do some hand reel fishing.
We took a trip to Fortune Island, which is a 1-2 hour boat ride off the coast. There the ocean was more alive, more fish, and brighter coral. Unfortunately the trip (organized through Coral Beach Club) was really expensive and we didn’t love it. It was 1500 Pesos per person, min 4 people but we could not find anyone else to go with us. We negotiated 5000 Pesos to go alone. Our boat guys weren’t the nicest we met on our trip and they anchored the boat quite far off the island’s shore. They just stopped and were like “ok, there you go” so we were forced to jump in and swim maybe 100 meters in a strong current to the beach. There were other boats anchored on the beach so we didn’t know why we couldn’t. If you are not a strong swimmer you would have just had to sit on the boat or turn around and spend a couple of hours going home. It also meant that we could not take our shoes, cameras, water, hats, snacks etc to enjoy the island. There were cool things to see there, like some random Greek/Roman columns and statues up on the hill but walking without shoes got painful and we were getting burned so we could only swim around for a bit then make the exhausting, strenuous swim back to the boat. If you make the trip to the island, tell them you need a boat that will anchor on shore to make your day worth it.
One of the nicest ways to spend the afternoon is to rent a raft from a guy on the beach. They will drag the raft over the shallow seaweed-covered shelf all the way out to the drop off where it suddenly gets deep and there is some old coral and a bit of decent snorkeling action. They anchor you there and you tell them what time you want to be dragged back in. The rafts have an awning, table, chairs, and sun loungers. You can take a cooler (the hotel gave us one) full of drinks, books, food and spend as long as you want out there for 400 pesos an hour. It’s perfect for sunset.
Negative Things to Note
Disgusting rubbish everywhere. In piles on the beach, on the streets, in the trees, in the fields. I just don’t understand what the local government are doing, why is there no trash disposal system? The hotel would rake the sand just outside the hotel each day so it was clean but either side of the hotel the beach was strewn with garbage.
Swimming among plastic bags, the ocean was a dumping ground, in one place we were snorkeling we came across dozens of trash bags, full of garbage dumped just offshore. If some kind of community group, or the town got together and hired just a few people, that’s all it would take, to make the place a million times nicer. The associated problem is the burning of trash. I can’t understand why the people there do not understand how bad this is. The air was foul, every new hundred meters, outside a hotel, a home, a shop, all along the beach would be another smoldering plastic fire. The smell of burning plastic sometimes became overwhelming.
This really made me sad. So many dying dogs. Hundreds…thousands of stray dogs in this town, lying all over the roads, in the sun, skinny to the bone, covered in mange and skin diseases, some dead, some almost dead, we saw one with its guts falling out of its stomach, we ran over one in a car that had already been hit. I just don’t know how people can ignore them. They are everywhere, fighting on the beach at night, yelping, barking and howling as the strays fight with the guard dogs of local establishments. Seeing them made my heart ache every day. All I could think was that someone needs to set up some kind of animal shelter there. Start neutering all the dogs they can find, euthanize the dying ones, help the sick ones. Something has to happen, the lack of apathy was really weird, to see people just casually walking past dogs with open wounds that look like they haven’t eaten in years, not even noticing them.
I wish that the owners of Coral and the other hotels and businesses would get together and come up with some solutions to these two, serious problems. If the government will not fix these problems in this forgotten town, then the private citizens should take this into their own hands and demand some change. It would take very little to turn Matabungkay into a beautiful, peaceful holiday getaway town, but it needs some love. The people there need some education and some community spirit and pride. The town is shambles but it has the charm, it really does. I would not return to Matabungkay, but I am glad I went.