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March 12, 2012

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Hanging with bats in Subic Bay

Clark Freeport Zone and Subic Bay are not places that immediately spring to mind when thinking of a trip to the Philippines. However, Rachel Yan discovers the former US military base area features an active volcano, indigenous people in the mountains and fruit bats.

For many, traveling to the Philippines means Boracay, Cebu or Bohol - those islands featuring white sandy beaches and couples on the honeymoon. The Clark Freeport Zone and its vicinity, offers a mix of cultures and natural landscapes that are quite extraordinary.

The little US

Situated in the north of Luzon Island, the Clark Freeport Zone, about 60 kilometers north of the capital Manila, is on the former US-operated Clark Air Base.

Since 1903, Clark, as well as its neighboring Subic Naval Base venue, has been utilized by the US as its two largest military bases outside its territory. It was named after Harold Clark (1890-1919), a US Air Force Major who etched his name in the record books as the first military aviator to travel from coast to coast in the Pacific Rim.

It's a strange sight being in the Philippines and seeing typical American countryside scenery such as big homes scattered about with large and neatly manicured lawns featuring tall trees.

Traces of the former airbase are ubiquitous. The resort villas have been renovated from the air force barracks. Dozens of deserted US helicopters and battle planes are scattered across a grassland where there is a memorial park.

Military buffs were overjoyed to touch the planes, but were soon disappointed. The interior equipment of the planes were looted after the US returned the base to the Philippines.

Locals proudly introduced valuables inside Clark Museum, a tiny display room of bullets, rifles and military uniforms. There's also a 3D volcano model that attracts attention.

Mt Pinatubo

Mount Pinatubo became known worldwide after its powerful eruption in 1991. It was declared the second biggest volcano eruption in the 20th century.

Having sensors that indicate early danger signs, the US forces alerted the Philippines government, which issued an evacuation alert for residents living within 20 kilometers of the volcano before it blew on June 15, 1991.

Despite the evacuation, the death toll hit 800, although locals believe the figure is larger because many Aetas, an aboriginal group with few connections to the outside world, have probably not been accounted for.

Our Chinese Filipino tour guide reminded us to bring candies and snacks along for the trip through Bangantungul, an aboriginal village. The candies are needed as gifts to distribute to the Aetas.

Living a primitive lifestyle on mountain slopes, the Aeta people are small in stature, usually 1.4 to 1.5 meters high, with curly hair and dark skin. They rely on agriculture and hunting to eke out a living.

Our guide told us about the first group of tourists brought to the volcano years ago. They were greeted by a tribe of hostile Aetas when passing through the village.

Holding arrows and spears in hand, the Aetas blocked their vehicle and prevented the "invaders" from moving forward, the guide said.

The South Korean tour organizer offered to pay a cash toll. It was rejected as money means nothing to Aeta people. Negotiations ended when the organizer agreed to give one bag of rice for each tourist.

Eventually, the tourism business developer would hire Aetas to work or perform at his resort and leisure facilities that include a hot spring and a spa.

As we pass through the village, smiling Aeta people waive to us along the road and kids grab for candies we distribute from the car.

But the open-air jeep ride across the desert, creeks and cliffs is tough. The sun is fiery, the air dusty and the mountain roads bumpy. I felt as if my nose and mouth were filled with dirt or I would be unceremoniously dumped onto the muddy volcano ash road if I didn't hold the handrail tight.

But in the end, the 20-minute ride is worth it. The beauty of the blue-green volcanic lake takes your breath away. With a diameter of 2.5 kilometers, the lake is actually a crater that formed 20 years ago in the volcanic eruption.

The flying fox

Subic Bay, about a one-hour drive from Clark Freeport Zone, is home to the fruit bat, the world's largest bat species.

With a wingspan up to 1.8 meters, the fruit bat is known as the flying fox because of its fox-like facial features. But it is also nicknamed the monk bat because they eat only fruit, where as most bats prefer insects.

Pre-trip itinerary leaflets said "you can see flying bats cover the entire sky," but when our bus arrived in the early afternoon, all we could see was a quiet forest.

Upon looking closer, we saw the bats sleeping in the trees, heads downward. Their bodies were wrapped inside their giant wings, leaving only two feet to hang onto the tree branches. Our guide encouraged us to "give them a 'boo' to wake them up."

Our first try failed to stir the bats, but did attract a crowd of screeching monkeys.

The second try had the desired effect. After a delayed reaction, a bat flapped its wings and took flight. And then another. Within a minute, hundreds of flying foxes were in the blue sky, leaving a crowd of onlookers marveling at the dancing bats.

If you go …

Chartered tourist flights by Cebu Pacific Air depart from Shanghai every Thursday and Sunday. But it's a red-eye flight that takes off at midnight. Cebu Pacific is a budget airline that does not include a meal or refreshments with the flight ticket. The flight is 3 to 3.5 hours.

Half package tour groups are available at major local tour agencies such as Shanghai FASCO Travel International. A three-day weekend package (Friday to Sunday) costs about 3,000 yuan (US$476), including roundtrip air ticket, accommodation, daily breakfast and a dinner. The Clark Freeport Zone sightseeing fee is included.

A four-day trip (Monday to Thursday) is also available.

You can take an extra one-day trip to the volcano (700 yuan) or Subic Bay (600 yuan).

November to April is the best time of year to visit as it is the dry season. Don't forget sunglasses and sunscreen lotion.


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