If a thing’s worth doing…

it’s worth doing by bike.

On my second day in Manila I decided, as is my wont, to take a guided tour of one of the main sites: Intramuros, the remains of the Spanish colonial Philippines (or Felipines, after Spanish King Felipe II, anglicised to Philip during the American colonial era) and the heart of modern Manila.

An abandoned Japanese cannon from WW2

An abandoned Japanese cannon from WW2

The old customs house - vast fortunes mined from the American colonies passed through here.

The old customs house – vast fortunes mined from the American colonies passed through here.

Monument to national hero, renaissance man Jose Rizal.

Monument to national hero, renaissance man Jose Rizal.

As a poor backpacker, I have previously avoided tours unless they were either free, very cheap, or really essential for any understanding of what I was looking at. I also hate the idea of being on a prescribed schedule and being shown stuff other people have decided is interesting. However, in recent (and more affluent) years, I have relaxed into the joy of discovering small stories I would never have known about without the expert knowledge of a local guide, and so on each big holiday I’ll generally look something up for an area of interest to me.

This was my second bicycle tour this year, and so I’m going to focus today not particularly on what I learned about the Intramuros area of Manila, but on what I learned about booking tours – particularly on bikes.

I only chanced upon this tour when I asked my hostel to help me contact a completely different group for a walking tour, but when they waved the leaflet for Ecotours – tours on a bamboo bike – under my nose, I couldn’t say no.

What the bike! A bicycle made of bamboo?” I hear you ask.

Yes, a bicycle made of bamboo, I respond. There is no more comfortable way to travel along cobbled, Spanish colonial-era streets.

Besides being naturally shock-absorbent and incredibly light, the bikes are beautifully crafted works of art. They are made from one particular type of bamboo, and treated for up to four weeks through a set of natural processes involving heat which makes them as durable as steel and also pest-proof. After that the parts are bound with a fibre which comes from banana plants (I can’t remember the name, but watch some of the illuminating videos on their site to find out more) and the whole frame is coated with a topcoat that makes it waterproof and UV-proof, ready for the parts to be attached.

Aside from the obvious benefit of creating something from an easily sustainable source material, the work is done in a community where jobs and access to the benefits of employment (social security, etc) are hard to come by. The project initially created bikes for export (Manchester folk, check out Dovetail Bikes for a local distributor if you’re interested) and this funded a local school in the community with a salaried teacher and a programme to ensure the students there get a regular nutritious meal. The tours in Intramuros were a later addition to the project and are a handy showcase for the bikes themselves among other things. They’re not cheap, but I knew my money was going somewhere useful and having a direct impact on people’s lives. Of course, the payoff for me is that I got a friendly, tailor-made and hugely knowledgeable tour of an interesting area.

I turned up without a prior booking and was the only person to want to go out, so I had a tour guide to myself for what is billed as 2 ½ hours, but was probably closer to three. I was able to ask a whole bunch of questions, which she ably fielded and, as well as seeing the sights of Intramuros, I got a potted history of the Philippines from “independence” (from the Spanish, at least) to the present day, the lowdown on Renaissance man and national hero Jose Rizal and the overlooked figure of Andres Bonifacio, and an interesting outlook on the current state of Filipino politics including the recent pork-barrel scandal and it’s ongoing aftermath.

Yesterday, my last day in Manila, I visited the very well put together Ayala Museum and found that I was able to tie in lots of the information I had received on the tour to get a fuller picture of events as presented in the 50-odd dioramas presenting the full known history of the population of the Philippines, from 150,000 BCE to now. Pieces of information have stayed with me and continue to inform my holiday experience. Now that’s value!

My previous bike tour experience was an afternoon with Soksabike in Battambang, Cambodia, in May this year. Deciding that going to Cambodia and only seeing Siem Reap and Sihanoukville did not comprise enough adventure for my tastes, I dictated that we would go around the Tonle Sap on our return to the south of the country (rather than jumping on a bus straight back the way we had come) and make a stop in Cambodia’s second city, Battambang. This proved to be a good decision for a number of reasons.

Firstly, Battambang, although it is small and has a sleepy town atmosphere rather than a second city atmosphere, is a very pleasant place to hang out for a day or two away from the tourist hustle of more popular locations. There is a handy heritage walking tour PDF which we downloaded and followed the first afternoon, taking in the major sights in the city.

Secondly, for a small place, there are a lot of nice restaurants and cafes around offering some fantastic Cambodian cuisine.

Finally, the bike tour was another great decision and a superb way to get out and about, meet some people who make their livelihoods in traditional industries of the region, and hear some very personal accounts of the effects of Cambodia’s years of turmoil on the lives of ordinary people.

Perhaps starting the habit of turning up on the day and hoping a tour would be going out, I again found myself the only person there, thus bagging a guide all to myself. We spend the afternoon riding a 30km circuit out around the town and stopping at a number of family-run businesses on the way. Most of the businesses involved food, so I was stuffed with dried fruit, fresh fruit and bamboo sticky rice (a truly delicious local treat) among other things. I also got to look all around the fish-paste factory; an olfactory adventure not for the faint-hearted (or the vegetarian). My guide this time was one of a number of university students who took out tours for Soksabike on rotation. Before our tour, he provided a great handout with handy Khmer phrases and drilled me for pronunciation on the most important ones, kum reap sor – hello – and orr kun – thank you. My atrocious pronunciation at least raised a smile with most people, but it also lit up the faces of the staff at our hotel when I used it there, and when we left they surprised us with a beautiful gift of cloth scarves which currently adorn the living room.

So what can I say to sum up my nascent theories on tours and bikes? Well, the main lesson for me has been that the right tour really is worth paying for. I would have missed a number of the sights of Intramuros if I had attempted to make sense of it all on my own. Having someone with a planned route and a personal view on both the sights and the historical events that made them significant was invaluable and will continue to inform the whole holiday. Similarly, in Cambodia I would never have known where to cycle off to outside of the city to find the right corner of the road for some bamboo sticky rice. Even if I had found some, I wouldn’t have had the first clue how to eat it. I definitely wouldn’t have visited a fish paste factory of my own volition, but as a staple of cuisine in the whole east Asia region, I would have missed out on an enlightening experience. I also would never have learned how to say anything properly in Khmer. It’s trickier to pronounce than it looks.

As for touring on bikes, my love of bikes is a part of my life. The bike-less Latin American years were not happy ones for me for transport and travel, so a bike tour is an easy sell for me and my cycle-commuter ilk. For those less wheel-inclined, I’d say that in terms of touring, bikes are obviously a more sustainable way to tour and mean that you can see a lot more in the same amount of time than you could on foot. In a smaller area it’s also possible to order the tour according to chronology, or historical significance, rather than, “this place is next to that one, so that’s where we’re going next.” This definitely seemed to be how Ecotours worked.

Both of the companies I’ve written about here have sustainable tourism at the heart of their missions: as well as the environmental benefit of touring by bike rather than by bus or taxi, the companies both aim to provide ongoing socio-economic benefits to their local communities by supporting local businesses, providing sustainable employment in areas where it is needed, sourcing and encouraging sustainable working practices and a myriad of other useful practices. The dilemma of tourism in general and its impact on the environment and on small communities around the world is a whole other debate which I will not go into here, but suffice to say, in my opinion, if it’s worth seeing then stump up the cash, find the people with the pedal-power, and do it by bike.

Bamboo bicycles: exactly what it says on the tin.

Bamboo bicycles: exactly what it says on the tin.

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