As far as Saturday nights go, this wasn’t building up to be a typical one. We were stuck in the coastal town of El Nido in the Philippines. At 7:30am the next morning we were booked onto the Manila flight from Puerto Princesa, a city some five hours’ drive away on the other side of Palawan island.
It would take a while to explain how we got into this mess, but in short, it involved an impulsive booking, a cancelled tour and an impromptu Friday night out. Nevertheless, there we were, bleary-eyed at 7pm and staring down the barrel of a long and sleepless night.
We booked ourselves onto the last bus of the day from El Nido to Puerto Princesa, which left at 9pm. Great value at 360 pisos each for an air-conditioned ride, but first we had to get to the bus station. We haggled with a tuk-tuk driver who eventually agreed to take us there for 50 pisos; another good deal, but with the extra price of having to cling desperately to our rucksacks all the way to avoid them spilling out onto the road.
We were relieved to see our bus appeared in reasonable condition, and pleasantly surprised by our comfy reclining seats. Any hopes for quality sleep on the bus would soon be dashed, though, as for some inexplicable reason we stopped for three breaks on the journey. Perhaps the transport company had shares in the shops and cafés conveniently situated at the stop-offs.
We arrived at Puerto Princesa bus station perfectly on schedule at about 2:30am. Phew – we weren’t going to miss our flight. But we still had to get to the airport, and we were about five kilometres away from it. Why couldn’t they have built the bus terminal closer to the airport, y’know, actually in Puerto Princesa? Perhaps the transport company also had shares in the tuk-tuks that were waiting on hand to shuttle us to the airport.
We asked one of the tuk-tuk drivers for a price. “700 pisos”. Had I any coffee in my mouth, I would’ve spat it out. That was as much as it had cost to get us all the way from El Nido to Puerto Princesa!
“I have to pay airport fee,” he offered as a justification. “250 pisos fee”. Even if that were true, why were we being charged another 450 pisos on top of that? After a few minutes’ bartering, we agreed to pay 400 pisos, which seemed to be the same figure reached by other disgruntled travellers from bus.
About 20 minutes later, via a stop at a forlorn petrol station, we pulled up at the airport, which was… closed. All the lights off, the gates shut, a solitary security guard standing imposingly with gun in hand. The tuk-tuk driver dumped us there and sped off, not appearing to pay a fee of any kind. Funny that.
Tentatively, I walked over to the security guard and asked him what time the airport would open. “5am,” he said “You can go café. Over there.” He pointed sternly over the road.
We lumbered our bags onto our backs once again and trudged in that direction. Sure enough, we found a little café. A few backpackers were sitting outside playing cards and drinking, and a few more were asleep on top of their bags inside. We took a seat outside and checked our watches: 3:30am. Only an hour and a half to kill. We bought some iced coffees.
Nothing seemed untoward for the first few minutes – we got our cards out and dealt a game of gin. Then, seemingly from nowhere, two guys approached the café. They were locals and appeared to be drunk. One of them had a bottle of something in his hand.
At the first table they reached were two British guys and two American girls. The guy with the bottle produced a shot glass and offered them a drink. “It’s a Filipino drink,” I heard him say. “Have some?” Although a seemingly generous gesture, something about the situation felt positively sinister. Alarms bells clanged in my head. The Brits and Americans declined as politely as possible.
The guys went around every table offering the drink. Eventually they reached us. “Have a drink,” the guy said. Neither the tone of his voice nor the look in his eye were welcoming. “Sorry,” I said, “not for me – but thank you.” The rejection was not well received. They stomped off, and the guy with the bottle hurled the shot of whatever-the-drink-was over the floor.
But they weren’t gone for long. A few minutes later they were back, offering drinks again. This time one of the British guys had a shot of it. There was a bit of awkward laughing, some indecipherable banter, and the guys left once more. But again, they came back.
This time their intentions became clear very quickly. A young German couple were sitting on the table behind me and Lisa. One of the local guys walked up to the German guy, grabbed him by the arm, wrenched him off the seat and began swinging punches at him. “What the fuuuuu….” Was the simultaneous reaction from pretty much everyone.
The second local guy was standing a few feet away, clearly prepared for what was unfolding. He scooped up a handful of stones from the floor and hurled them in the general direction of the German couple. The stones showered down on all of us sitting outside. One bounced off our table and another off my bag, but luckily none hit me or Lisa.
The German guy was the only person hit – a stone got him square across the nose. He flailed around in confusion, trying to defend himself. The guy threw more stones. We shielded ourselves as best we could, and grabbed hold of our bags. And then, in a flash, the guys ran to a moped over the road, got onto it and sped off. They weren’t trying to rob us; they were just drunk and looking for a fight.
The woman running the café came rushing outside looking pale and flustered, for some reason apologising – this was obviously not her fault! We all turned our attention to the German guy, who was shaken but ok. The people sleeping in the café stumbled to their feet and looked blankly out at the scene, wondering what was happening. A few minutes later the commotion died down.
In two weeks in the Philippines this was our only bad experience with locals; for the rest of the time we had only encountered friendly and helpful people. You have to be careful in cities anywhere in the world, though, and if a smidgeon of ill feeling towards foreign tourists exists, alcohol only serves to amplify it.
We waited out the last hour in brooding silence, and the instant the airport gates opened at 5am we made for the safety of the bright lights. There were to be no more dramas – we checked in, chilled out, boarded, and touched down safely in Manila at 8:30am.
We’ve made a lot of overnight journeys on our travels (check out my guide to taking overnight buses here), but none quite as stressful and eventful as this one.
Have you had any difficult incidents on overnight journeys on your travels? Share your stories in the comments below.