To bus or not to bus – the Northern Philippines

We didn’t plan. My idea! I thought it would be easy to get about. From Rome2Rio site it looked like there were buses and flights. Simple right?

No chance. The reality is a whole different matter. This is hard travel. It all happens on the ground. You need to be in a place to book your bus tickets, check the times. Show up early on the day as they don’t do advance booking and if you get there too late then the bus is fully booked then you don’t get on and have to wait for the next one or perhaps the one after that. Not quite what we expected. We learnt something new for every bus we got!

So! We flew into Laoag. Our flight was late, gone 9pm. There were loads of porters in arrivals and so we expected the same with taxis, ready to bombard us as we walked out. Alas we were wrong. No taxis. No rank. Everyone flying in was local. They all had their lifts organised. We didn’t! We wandered around pursue looking and finally a porter punted us in the direction of a tuk tuk – locally known as a tricycle. Our bags were placed on top and we got into the side car in the hope that bags would still be there on arrival. In hindsight, which we talk about a lot; we should have asked the hotel to organise a transfer. We got there in the end.

Negotiating with the tuk tuk driver

Next stop, Laoag to Vigan. We asked at the front desk about buses. They looked at us blankly. At this place, a little outside of Laoag, the norm was that people drove. So we got a tricycle into town and went in search of the Partsas bus station to buy our ticket for the next morning. Different bus companies often have their own stations – just beware. The young lady behind the counter told us that there was a bus the next morning at 9am. We could only buy our tickets 30 mins beforehand.

Up early, breakfast had, off to the Partas bus station we went for the 9am bus. There was no 9am bus. It wasn’t coming. Next bus at 10am. Time to sit back, relax and get into the Filipino groove. Fortunately the 10am bus showed up and we were on our merry way. 2.5 hours down the road we went and we’re dropped off in central Vigan. Not in the bus station what we might check out how to dust the city two days later.

We realised that if we wanted to continue our journey to Sagada there would be travel challenges ahead. The comfortable bus route or the jeepney route where you wait on roadsides in the hope that a jeepney will come along. We opted to go the “comfort route” via Baguio.

We paid a visit to the Partas bus station the following day. Three different people told us three different times for buses the next morning. There might be a 6am but they wouldn’t know until the next morning. The next one would be at 10am and that was more guaranteed. We opted to take the chance of the early bus and fortunately it paid off. a comfortable bus arrived and we prepared ourselves for the six hours journey ahead which would bring us up into the Highlands.

Forget Google’s time reference, it takes 6 hours to get from Vigan to Baguio (also known as the City of Pines)  on the bus and then another 6 hours for 133km to get to Sagada. And not possible to do the two journeys in one day (if going the comfort route) as the bus times don’t match up.  We stayed in Baguio for 2 nights and took in the congested / polluted city within a valley where the pollutants don’t have much of an opportunity to get blown away. 

This time, our hotel phoned for us about bus times to Sagada. There were a number of different choices between the GL and Lizardo bus companies. We opted for the 830am bus.  We got to the Dangwa bus station to be told that the bus was full. We could get the next one at 10am. Again tickets could only be bought the same day. Ticket office opened at 5am. Lesson learnt – always get to the bus station well early!  The 10am bus was more comfortable than the 830am, but this comes down to pot luck. 6.5 hours later through the mountains, with two loo / food stops we made it to Sagada. 

We’d just missed the 330pm jeepney to our accommodation near Bomod-ok but the next one was at 4pm. Which actually turned out to be  4.45pm as the driver decided to wait for the teachers at the local school. Must have been a Friday feeling!  The  jeepneys have a schedule – kinda. 

As soon as we arrived we started planning our exit to Manila on Monday morning. We’d opted against the Coda bus which went direct to Manila from Sagada at 3pm. Arriving into Manila at 3am was not something we wanted to experience and opted to go back to Baguio, make our way from Dangwa bus station to the Government Road bus station and get a deluxe bus back to Manila. Again, what we didn’t realise, even though we went to the Government Road, was that with JoyBus you can book in advance. We think there is a website out there that you can book on, it’s just finding it!!  Online booking in the Philippines is a novel concept and one which may take a few years to come in. They still issue paper tickets with holes punched through to indicate destination, time, seat etc. 

So escaping Sagada, we opted for the 5am bus to Baguio. You stand at the bus stop, place your luggage in a queue on the side of the road (they like a good queue in the Philippines) and wait for the bus. We were at the stop at 420am. The first ones. We were learning! Good job. The bus was full when leaving for the 6.5 hour journey West. Sit on the side of the driver for sunrise and to see the cloud forest as you head down. There are some sheer drops and at times I couldn’t look out. 

Waiting for bus in Sagada at 430am. We were first.

We got a taxi to take us to the Joy Bus station in hope of  making making the 12 noon bus. The one with the big seats, 3 seats across, reclining and screens. No stops. Used the toll highway. We were in luck. The bus was there. Into the office to buy the ticket for 780 pesos. No luck. Full. They had a list of standbys for it and by time of leaving there was one seat available but I want gonna leave himself behind. Next deluxe one was at 3pm to Pasay. Or 5pm. Or 6pm. All standby. Definite for 8pm. No chance. We had a hotel booked and there was a glass of wine with my name on it in  Manila. 

We had a quick walk about and ascertained that there was a bus going to Avenida in Manila at 1.15pm, with stops, not on the tolled highway and we would cab it from there – that would use up the savings on the ticket price which was 460 pesos. There are three bus terminals. Avenida, North of the city, Cubao; out West and Pasay, south  (out near the airport) so choose wisely.  

There is another  other way to see these places – book a driver  / tour from Manila and you won’t have to think about any of this. You just miss out on seeing the countryside, seeing what the locals need to do to get about and of course early mornings and the waiting and hoping that you will get to your destination.  



2 Comments Add yours

  1. Associate Justice Randall says:

    Hi Shiv
    Happy new year. I always enjoy your posts. Have you heard anything from Susan?
    Rather than buses, would you recommend any cycling in the Philippines?
    You cannot complain about bus delays. Janraem and I undertook a Buddhist pilgrimage in Varanasi before returning to Thailand. The route was Varanasi (Sarnath) to Kushinagar (where Buddha died) and back to Bodhgaya (so Janraem could sit under the Bodhi tree). I tried to book train tickets here but found that an Indian credit card and telephone number were required. Managed to entrust the bookings to a mate’s husband. Success after almost 2 months. Rocked up for our first leg to Kushinagar and it was a breeze. The station tourist officer even took us to the platform. Downhill after that. Went to book a taxi back to the station only to be told that the train back to Varanasi had been cancelled. So organised a car. 5 hours of defacto driving with my brake foot cramped up in the end and I was only a passenger. Plus, needed to navigate despite the way being clearly sign posted in Hindi and English. The driver had no idea of the route. Arrived back in Varanasi with at least an hour to spare to make the connecting train to Gaya. Walked the last k as the traffic jam would have delayed us beyond the connection. Arrived Varanasi Junction to find that the train was not listed. The station tourist officer told us that there had been an incident on the line (hence the previous cancellation) and the Doon express had been rerouted to a station 17k away and delayed an hour later. Plenty of time for the tuk tuk ride. Arrived to find it had been delayed a further hour then 2 and finally 3 hours delay. With 15 minutes before its scheduled delayed departure, there was still no news as to whether it would actually arrive. I also noted that just about all other trains had been delayed 9 hours. Decided to pull up stumps and put us at the mercy of a slicky boy tuk tuk driver to take us to a hotel for the night. Janraem did not panic but insisted that we stay at the first place sighted rather than being led to slick boy’s brother’s abode. Slicky boy was miffed but insisted that he would arrange a car for 8am the next day to take us to Bodhgaya. 8 am – no car! Took another tuk tuk to the Haveli where we had stayed the first time in Varanasi. They organised a car for us without any fuss whatsoever. This time it was 6 hours of intense driving. Obviously, I have lived to tell the tale.
    Janraem really enjoyed the sacred sites and would go back if she went with a tour group staying at the Thai temples. We were invited into the Thai temples even though they or parts were off limits to general tourists. I am still amazed that as a pagan, I was let in. At one, the head monk invited me to sit with him and held my hand while we chatted. Janraem and a couple of monks sat at our feet. Otherwise, she detested India and struggled with the food. She was really nervous on the streets and was annoyed if I moved away from her for even the smallest distance. She felt intimidated by the all male streetscapes, particularly as many walked right up to her and stood within her personal space and just stared at her. Quite a few also touched her which is a taboo practice for Thais. I also had to make sure that I was not seen laughing when she tried to block her nose to the smells and walk delicately to avoid the poo and piss on the ground, all of which was not necessarily the product of the wandering cows. From my own aspect, I was disappointed to see that gender equality is a foreign concept. Pity help any women who was not at least upper middle class if she wanted to make a life of her own. Further, the sense of entitlement was pervasive. There is a view that rubbish can be strewn everywhere and that some person of lesser status can attend to its management. I had to stop myself from laughing when I was shown a river bank reclamation project with the accompanying exultation as to how fine it would be. After all, we walked past perfectly delightful garden areas which I would not set my foot into for fear of contracting some dire disease from the accumulated rubbish. Despite all that, there was a feeling of familiarity about India although I had not been in Varanasi since 1978 and India, in general, since about 1996. I cannot imagine returning except for a particular reason. Having said that, I would still like to ride into Arunachal Pradesh but perhaps, from the China side.

    Had my usual ball in Thailand riding a loop up north. Half thinking about Thailand into China in October but I think that New Zealand may win out as I will be back in Thailand at the end of the year in any event.

    Not at all pleased that the holiday has ended but I was buoyed by some good news this morning. Had a telephone call from Melbourne university to enquire if I would be interested in speaking to a group of Thai and separately Singaporean judges later in the year. So there may be a life for me after retirement in a few years’ time.

    Also, I will need to stop chasing the girls in June as I expect to attain the status of Grandfather by then.

    Millions of hugs


    Rod Randall | Judges’ Chambers | Supreme Court of Victoria
    436 Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, 3000 | DX 210608
    T +61 (03) 9603 9057 E


    1. Vonn Voyage says:

      Hey Rod
      Wonderful to hear from you. It sounds like you and Janraem have been having some fun travels.
      I think there is cycling to be had here in the Philippines but it might be more mountain biking. Probably needs a little bit of investigating. We head to Borneo next week and had looked at Spice Road there but the cost was £1500 more than G Adventures, so that’s what we’re doing instead.

      Congrats on getting some extra curricular work, who know what it could hold for the future although you maybe too busy changing nappies again. Whole new world ahead of you playing granddaddy. Fantastic news.

      I don’t hear too much from Susan but I know that if I go to Amsterdam we will meet up. The Eurostar now goes there directly from London so it’s suddenly become a lot easier.

      Happy holiday planning and don’t stop chasing the ladies.

      Big hugs



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