Boracay and the Ghost of Vacations Past

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The ghosts of vacations past

While it is often considered one of the most beautiful islands in the world, my recent experience on the island was at odds with Boracay’s reputation as a place of immense natural beauty.

Haunted by the ghosts of a happier trip to the island in my past and with my perceptions perhaps tainted by my ongoing issues with depression and the cynicism of age, I found very little to love about the Philippines’ premier beach playground.

My first memories of Boracay are of a rosier sort.

Of days spent glowing with sweat hard-earned in our explorations of the island.

Of delicious meals eaten with a side order of ribald tales and fond recollection.

Of one scrapbook moment spent tangled in the arms of a pretty local girl underneath the gem-studded sky as we kissed to the rustling approval of palm trees.

boracay island hopping
Happier times on Boracay with my siblings and friends.

Returning there this year, buoyed as I was from time spent with friends and a new romance, I found that my every move on the island was a gross parody of my earlier explorations.

Restaurants and bars that had seemed so new and exciting on my previous visit seemed now dull and, dare I say it, almost predatory.

The white-toothed smiles and jovial cries of hawkers no longer seemed endearing so much as opportunistic. Vegas on the beach.

It’s a dangerous business, revisting a place where you’ve had fond memories and expecting it to be the same.

The place might have changed.

The company you keep might have changed.

And you most certainly have changed.

Boracay is undeniably beautiful

By day it’s hard to deny Boracay’s status as one of the most picturesque islands on earth.

If you can tune out the hordes of Korean and Chinese tourists clamouring for the perfect selfie spot and just soak in the ambience of the place, there’s a lot to like.

A long stretch of white sand is a ribbon of separation between the cerulean water and the ever-present palms that seem to lean towards the ocean with yearning.

Sailboats skim across the mirror still waters all day, white as the wings of gulls by day and ominously dark silhouettes against the fire of the setting sun.

And the sunsets! Boracay was made for sunset.

Every evening the island’s waters are transformed by an infernal palette of reds, yellows, oranges, and purples that prologue the island’s inevitable decline into sordid decadence by night.

I don’t use the word infernal lightly. Brilliant and beautiful though the colours may be, they speak to the descent of the island from beach playground to adult playground.

As children turn towards their beds and the young set emerge from their hangovers from the previous night, the island takes on a face that is at odds with its natural beauty.

Boracay’s Ugly Side

Like Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Boracay is a different animal by night.

With the beach and the water now hidden behind the descending curtain of darkness, it is to the narrow boulevard that tourists are drawn.

Lit alternately by sickly fluorescence or garish carnival light, the walkway is awash with light and sound. Acoustic performers, acrobatic fire dancers, and vibrating stereo speakers vie for your attention in a warring cacophony of wailing voices and pounding bass.

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Ah, White Beach. Where the natural beauty of the Philippines meets the excess and sin of Boracay. By day, it's easy to get swept up in the romance of a place like this. The white sand and azure waters are every bit the tropical paradise Boracay purports to be. Sure, there are crowds and insistent hawkers, but it's all innocent enough. By night, as the lights cast the walkway in carnival hues, the island's darker side comes out to play. Massages are loudly offered with the muttered promise of a little extra. Bars and clubs vie for attention with increasingly resonant bass and incredibly flirtatious staff. And, in the islands of darkness that stands as testament to businesses gone by the wayside, the prostitutes lurk like predatory grotesques. They loom out from beneath the inky shadows cast by palms, all painted-on beauty and too tight clothes. Sometimes they content themselves with words. Other times that claw at you with fake nails and barely veiled desperation. Every walk home after dark is a gauntlet to be endured, and there's a mixed feeling of both isolation and forced inclusion here that I didn't experience when traveling with friends.

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These splashes of light eat away at the darkness, but they don’t banish it completely  In the islands of darkness  that stand as testament to businesses gone by the wayside, the opportunists lurk in the inky shadows cast by palms, all painted on beauty and too tight clothes.

“Massage sir/madam,” girls coo from the yawning mouths of alleys, “Massage with happy ending”.

These are low level scavengers. A product of the beer-bellied sexpats and sexed up idiots who come to the Philippines looking to prey on its poor and pretty.

Up ahead a figure looms out of the darkness. She’s scarecrow thin and wearing an outfit that tries and fails to emphasize her non-existent curves.

“Where you been baby?” she asks, forcing a familiarity that I sure as hell don’t feel, “Want to have a drink with me?”

I shake my head. I’ve seen carnival grotesques with more inherent appeal.

She claws at my arm with fake nails and thinly veiled desperation. Her grip is surprisingly tight on my arm, and as I try to walk away she momentarily brings me to a stop. I snatch back my arm and bite back a curse. She stumbles, relinquishes her grip, and staggers on in a daze.

We’ve created a monster

I can’t fault the Philippines or even the Boracay residents for the decline and decline of what was once considered one of the most beautiful places on earth.

The locals and the opportunistic foreign owners are servicing a need that we as tourists have brought to the table.

We cried out for the opportunity to drink cheap Red Horse and watch the sun set.

We wanted to churn up muddy tracks on ATVs and leave frothy contrails behind our jetskis.

atv boracay
Even I’m guilty of indulging the sordid touristy nature of the beast. ATVing in 2014.

We yearned to be closer to the setting sun and conjured up the dozens of sailboats that now blot the horizon.

We asked for the happy endings and the pump and grunt of bought love.

We’ve created the monster that is modern day Boracay, and I’m not sure it’s within our power to fix that.

As long as the island’s siren song draws drunk backpackers, lonely white guys, and hordes of Asian tourists who don’t understand the negative impact of their stamping feet and grasping hands – Boracay will continue its slow sink into Sodom-esque depravity.

A matter of perspective

Of course, my feelings for Boracay were different only two years ago.

Has the island changed so much? Or have I been the one who has undergone changes?

Has my time abroad simply allowed me to turn a more critical eye to the things I once found acceptable as a doe-eyed tourist?

Or was it the absence of familiar faces that made things that might have once seemed charming suddenly feel so sinister?

Would I have found the seething, sweaty mess of Epic more appealing if I had friends with me to join the revelry?

Maybe it’s just that I’ve grown and changed in the intervening years. I’ve experienced beauty of a similar scope in Tanzania, Malaysia, and Thailand without any of the gaudy trimmings that tangle Boracay’s White Beach.

I’ve been elsewhere in the Philippines and encountered a warmth and friendliness that goes deeper than wanting the money in my pocket.

I’ve come to want more from my travels than booze, food, and sunshine. Boracay offers little beyond these skin deep distractions.

I don’t think that I’ll be returning to Boracay any time soon to give it another opportunity. I’ve already tainted my first memories of the place by dredging up its ghosts, and a third visit is unlikely to show any less pollution, prostitution, and overpopulation.

Your Say

What have been your experiences in Boracay or other places like it?

Phuket in Thailand, Bali in Indonesia, Hainan in China, and Jejudo in South Korea – for example.

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17 comments

  1. Love this so much. I don’t think it is as much as about a destination changing as it is about the person in us who changes… Have been in this situation. I think as we mature, we all realize the need for slow, sustainable or responsible travel.. 🙂

    • That’s so true. I’m definitely not the same person today as I was when I first visited Boracay as a newly single, cashed up expat in 2014. It’s surprising the changes time works in us, and how the strangest things draw them to our attention.

    • Yeah. It can be fun if you’re with a group of people – but it’s not the place to go for a solo thing or a relaxing time.

  2. I was just there a few weeks ago and am trying to write about it. Your story has given me a lot to think about. Thanks for your honesty. Great read!

  3. Great read man. I had the same exact feeling when I went to Boracay in 2015. Was extremely disappointed and regretted booking the hotel in advance as I had to stay there 4 days too long. A once beautiful island choked out by tourism. To be honest I always recommend for people now to keep it off their itineraries (unless they’re the type of tourist that Boracay ‘thrives’ for. There are far more beautiful islands to explore in the Philippines.

  4. Very well-written piece, Chris. Mary and I had a chance to spend a few days exploring the islands of the Philippines before TBEX and were offered luxury options in Coron and Boracay. We hesitated to do Coron, knowing we’d be going back there on our post-TBEX FAM. But after researching Boracay, it just didn’t feel like the place for us. I appreciate you confirming my worst fears about Boracay, and the assurance that we made the right decision!

    • I definitely think you made the right call!

      While I haven’t had the pleasure to make it to Coron myself, I did love the areas of Palawan that I did see. I’ve heard El Nido has started to go down the Boracay track already too. Such a shame 🙁

  5. I can’t comment on Boracay having not been there; but I can comment on the article you have written. This is raw, and real and an engaging read from beginning to end. Chris – I am a fan.

  6. Great post Chris. This is how I feel about my only visit to Bali.
    But of course you’re also right about the risk of returning to a place you’ve enjoyed in the past but with the “current you” instead. Sometimes it’s better just to bask in the memories …

    • I haven’t spent much time in Bali due to its reputation for being just as bad as Boracay, but I’m glad we’re in agreement on the ‘it’s hard to return’ side of things.

      I have some places I’ve gone back to and loved (Portland, OR, Phuket, Thailand, and Beijing, China), but by and large – I think it’s better to get out and try something new rather than risk tarnishing old memories.

  7. I know this very well. As people who live on the road I think that underbelly of a destination is more apparent. I LOVE the Philippines, I’ve been to about 6 islands so far and I can’t wait to see more. Boracay isn’t one I’m flocking to unless there’s a major opportunity or something for this exact reason. I can see it a mile away, it’s a beauty and a beast and I’m not sure if I want to deal with the beast to say I’ve been with the beauty. There are so many other spots without that sad baggage that comes with the development of a destination due to tourism. As visitors and the partial cause, I guess we’re not in any position to complain though. Haha. Well written, Chris 🙂

    • I’m glad this resonated with you, and I definitely think Boracay is one you can give a miss unless something really draws you there. There are nicer beaches all over the Philippines, and the night life is something you can find virtually anywhere in Southeast Asia.

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