Few cities in the Philippines are worth a visit from overseas (except perhaps for people coming from the Central African Republic or Afghanistan to appreciate the creature comforts of running water or mains electricity or a vibrant night-life), but Bais is a great starting point for three world class natural attractions: Dolphin and whale watching, the caves of Mabinay and the Olayan Falls in Balinsasayao Twin Lakes National Park.
The southern municipal boundary is unmistakeable for the huge, ancient acacia trees that provide a sylvan tunnel for the national road to pass through with glimpses of Spanish style houses set in palatial grounds. After the sugar mill is passed on the west side of the road and the Baldwin Locomotive on the east, there is a long straight with open cane fields on either side for 4km and then Bais with its new two storey Mercado de Bais is reached quite abruptly with no preceding urban sprawl.
Cebu Pacific has flights from both Manila and Cebu, and Philippine Airlines has flights from Manila into Sibulan Airport (IATA: DGT), ☎ +63 35 225 0900 (lat=9.334 | long=123.296) about 38km to the south. This has a runway that in many countries would be considered too short for medium sized civilian jet aircraft, but both Cebu Pacific and Philippine Airlines fly in and out with Airbus and Boeing jets daily. Most jets take off toward the sea, where the runway ends abruptly at the salt water of the Tañon Strait/Bohol Sea, so both takeoffs and landings are thrilling affairs.
Ceres buses run every 10 minutes or so between the provincial capital of Dumaguete 44km away and Bais. (They continue on to Mabinay and thence to Bacolod through the hills or hug the coast to San Carlos.) You can't really get this wrong since every bus heading north out of Dumaguete will go through Bais except the three a day that are catching a Ro-Ro and clearly marked "Cebu" on the front. Fare was ₱51 in January 2015 from Dumaguete to Bais.
You can also take a Ceres Bus from Cebu that travels directly to Bais via a 45 min roll-on, roll-off (Ro-Ro) ferry between the southern tip of Cebu island at Bato and Amlan just south of Tanjay. Other Ceres buses set passengers down at Lilo-An so they can take the faster passenger-only boat and shorter 15min crossing to Sibulan ( ☎ +63 419 8140) just north of Dumaguete where they can then catch any Ceres bus heading north.
Large Ro-Ro ferries come into Dumaguete from Manila, Cebu, and Dapitan or Cagayan de Oro in Mindanao. There are also passenger-only fastcraft from Cebu (via Tagbilaran on the island of Bohol) and also from Larena on the island of Siquijor.
In every case, each port of entry to Negros is frequently served by the bright yellow Ceres buses onwards to Bais.
Bicycle rickshaws and motorcycle combinations (confusingly called pedicabs locally) are abundant on the streets. 125cc scooters can also be hired from Melba's Dolphin Frolic Trips.
Your best chance of seeing cetaceans and other marine mammals is in the few hours immediately after dawn and especially from March to October. This means that you need to wake up and start your trip early for best results. Most tourists see far less marine wildlife than they could if they stayed in Bais and got up early!!!
If you don't want to wake up early to travel from Dumaguete or somewhere else to board your boat in Bais, you should check into a hotel in Bais the day before your Dolphin and Whale Watching trip. Sun screen is essential for those with low levels of melanin in their skin since you will moor a kilometre or two off the coast to the east of Olympia Island to enjoy the White SandBar Reef that is washed clean at every high tide. The sparkling azure waters here have good visibility and are ideal for swimming and snorkelling.
At dusk, many independent barbecue vendors compete for customers along the National Road in front of the Mercado de Bais. There are also plastic tables and chairs laid out so you can dine al fresco. Prices are moderate and range from ₱2 for a small bamboo spit of rather fatty pork meat to ₱60 for a whole chicken breast (Jan 2015). Cold drinks are available and Julies' Bakeshop on the corner has a variety of breads.
In January 2015, there were ZERO restaurants worthy of listing in Bais, but many small eateries clustered around the Mercado de Bais serving Filipino food.
Bais is generally a safe city. There are few beggars and no touts and the police have a visible presence at the heart of the city, opposite the Mercado de Bais.
You'll see plenty of evidence that locals are concerned about burglaries and thefts. Many of the larger old houses have walls with barbed wire, spikes or broken glass to discourage people from climbing the walls. Most businesses have roll-down shutters for protection when they are closed. Many businesses have armed security guards. All of this, however, is true in most areas of the Philippines, and much of it is common to most low-income countries.
Both the traffic and the condition of the pavements require considerable caution from pedestrians - again this is true all over the Philippines.
Bais Tourism Office ☎ +63 35 541-5161 Fax: +63 35 402-8181
Balinsasayao Twin Lakes National Park
☎ +63 35 225 0670. From Bais City, catch any Ceres bus in the direction of Dumaguete and tell the driver where you're going. He'll drop you about 400m past the point where you first see the Tañon Strait on the left hand side. Underneath a tree at the junction of the mountain road there will be a big brown sign with white lettering and some boys with motorcycles (habal-habal) to take you the 14.6km into the mountains. They'll probably want to charge ₱400 for the return trip, plus ₱50 for each hour of waiting time. Since the return trip in the Ceres bus will cost about ₱86, when you add on the cumulative charges of hiring motorcycles and their riders, if you are more than 3 in your party, it's probably more cost effective to call the people that operate Melba's Dolphin Frolics and get her brother (who was born in this mountain area) to take you in his jeepney and get him to show you some of the hard to find trails. Many of the plants in the National Park have local medicinal and other uses - for example, the salmon coloured flowers that look like pixie hats in the photo at the right are Katyobong flowers that are mildly toxic but are used, amongst other things, for relieving asthma. None of this bisayan folklore is readily accessible on-line or in book stores, so if you're interested in this kind of stuff, then consider employing a local guide.
In January 2015, the first 10km of the road had been newly concreted and was in excellent condition. Then comes about 1km where the road is still under active re-construction, with the final 3km in good condition again.
As you climb the road from sea level, after about 2km you'll probably notice a pretty, well kept chapel with salmon-coloured stucco on the right hand side of the road. This chapel commemorates the "miracle of 4 March 1989 in Santo Niño Cambaloctot Grotto". Paraphrasing the account in "English" in blue lettering hand painted on a shelter outside: a group of electioneering politicos were distributing food and medical supplies to the remote village on the mountainside nearby called Cambaloctot. On their way back down the mountain, accompanied by an armed escort of army officers, they saw a rainbow. The sun behaved in a mysterious way and “danced” around the rainbow, growing cyclically smaller and then larger before resuming its normal position in the heavens. Also, the nuns reported a golden glow on their rosaries which remained after the incident, hence the miracle.
After about 4km, you'll see a very well kept restaurant on the left: Azalea Restaurant, Cambaloctot, San Jose ☎ +63 35 422-0113 Daily 08:00-17:00. At an elevation of 289m above the Tañon Strait far below, the view from the road is already pretty good, but just wait until you enter the restaurant down the steps! The restaurant clings to the side of a steep and verdant ravine with a river at the bottom and has one of the best views in all the Philippine islands. Azalea is tiled, has comfortable chairs and a great ambience with nice china and silverware but the food lets the whole place down. It's the sort of unimaginative typical Filipino stuff that you can find near any bus station. Considering that much of their clientele is from overseas, this restaurant is a prime example of why the Philippines struggles to improve its foreign tourism figures.
Just before or after reaching the the National Park's gatehouse you may well see the long white fibres of Abaka drying on frames in the sun. Misleadingly called Cebu hemp by some - since it is a member of the banana family (Musa textilis) - the fibres up here in this colder climate are even longer and tougher than usual. This Abaka fibre has exceptional strength and flexibility and its buoyancy, together with its resistance to damage by salt water, means that its great for making fishing nets. It doesn't need spinning and locals used to make all kinds of clothing, hats, baskets and mats from it. Although it looks like a large banana plantain, you won't mistake Abaka if you sample one of the fruits because they are very bitter to the taste! The fertile volcanic soil on these slopes means that a harvest can be made every 4 months or so and the plantains can be cropped for 10 years or so. A good place to see them growing is on the trail to the Olayan Falls, where you'll also probably see humming birds sipping the nectar from their flowers 5m above your heads if you're not too rumbunctious.
At the National Park's gatehouse (lat=9.352 | long=123.182) you'll need to pay ₱100 entry fee per foreigner (₱10 for those with Philippine nationality), together with ₱12 for a motorcycle or ₱60 for a van or car to be admitted.
On the right of the gatehouse you may be a bit disappointed at the moderate size and depth of the first lake - little more than a shallow pond. Don't despair, this is NOT the lake you came to see! Continue upwards on the concrete road which reaches gradients of 1 in 4 and you will come to a large building on the right, nicely constructed out of huge bamboo canes. They only have poor Filipino food here but the deck that overlooks the much larger Lake Balinsasayao offers superb views out over the rainforest canopy and the endangered Visayan Tarictic Hornbill (Penelopides panini) can sometimes be sighted from here. These very rare hornbills are differently coloured according to gender with the female darker than the male. These fruit-eaters are noisy birds, making a sound like like ta-rik-tik - hence their name!
Other animals to spot include Visayan warty pigs and the Philippine forest frog - that's not the noisy little green and black one you hear by the water's edge, by the way (and, unless you're very lucky indeed, it won't be Platymantis negrosensis which was probably on the edge of extinction even before the advent of that fungal nemesis of amphibians worldwide, Chytridiomycosis).
If you continue past the locked gate on foot down to the shores of Lake Balinsasayao you will find that twin hulled canoes can be hired for ₱250 for the first 7 passengers for one hour (additional passengers are ₱50 and life-jackets ₱25 each). This crater lake is about 885m (2900 ft) above sea level so the air is pleasantly cool. Mount Mahungot is to the south, Mount Kalbasan to the north, Mount Balinsasayao to the east and Mount Guidabon to the west.
The surrounding mountain slopes forested with dipterocarps are pretty well the only rain forest left on the island of Negros. You can still see Almaciga (Agathis philippinensis) conifer trees up to 60 metres tall although many elsewhere are dying from an unknown disease. Tilapia mossambica, Cyprinus carpio, Ophiocephalus striatus, Anquilla sp, Macrobrachium sp, Viruna literata, Fabricus sp and Chanos chanos fish are found in both the lakes. The protected area totals some 8,016 hectares (19,810 acres).
If you travel to the far shore of Lake Balinsasayao