As a first-time car passenger, I quickly learned that there are few things worse than the agony of sitting still. In the beginning there were a few hang-ups that meant moving wasn’t an option—mainly this was the trudge and grudge of noontime traffic, which is an unfortunate experience anywhere in the Philippines, it seemed. When you are riding in a sidecar, no matter how pretty the sidecar, there isn’t much leeway around smog or heat. It is impossible to sit pretty. My bandana started to build a layer of sweat.
“I call this part ‘Mini EDSA’,” our host, Mayi Picazo would later tell me; traffic, he says, is the unfortunate reason that Urals, or motorcycles with sidecars, might never be a hit in a bustling metropolis like Metro Manila.
But here on the island of Palawan, the traffic is only a minor precursor to the show; once we had gassed up these bad boys and left the city center of Puerto Princesa, it was all open, wonderful roads and wind that sounded like thunderous applause, with a little shriek that said “FINALLY.” There was a moment before Toto, who was driving my Ural, revved up and cut loose. The tricycle driver next to me, and a couple of bystanders, were looking at the sight of us: four colorful Urals and one Royal Enfield zooming past in a row, eight people in full gear. Mayi might have let an excited, crisp “Yeah, boy!” loose. I noticed a kid watching us, rubbernecking like in the cartoons as his head turned…left, right, left, right.
These Urals are deceptively fast, or at least I think that’s what the boys had been saying over breakfast, the lot of motorcycle enthusiasts that they were. There had been some heavy talk about counter-steering and something about brakes that I, not a motorhead, didn’t catch. In any community, there is bound to be the jargon of insiders, but motorcycle speak is particularly hard on the technicalities. To the regular human being, it sounds like an entirely different language.
“Isn’t driving a Ural like driving a motorcycle?” I innocently asked.
And I was told, adamantly: This is not a motorcycle. It became my imaginary tagline for the iconic vehicle: Not a car, but not a motorcycle. It’s a Ural.
Sitting in the pastel blue sidecar, as we let out til we were running at 100 kilometers per hour on the road to San Vicente, even I, not a motorhead, could appreciate this language.
A huge part of the appeal of the Ural-not-a-motorcycle is that you can just be its happy passenger. Motorcycle tourism, which has been a popular medium of touring as early as the 1980s, might finally be catching up in the Philippines. Local motorcycle enthusiasts have been alluding to a sudden burst from the community in recent years: small garages popping up, subgroups forming, #RidingGroups getting together for long-distance leisure trips that go on for hours.
Motorcycle riding, despite the hang-ups, and despite the rage of city trafﬁc, is in. Granted, touring bikes like the Ural have been around for ages—motorcycle tour packages in most Southeast Asian countries, like Vietnam or Indonesia, are regular terrain in their landscape of tourism. In fact, long-distance motorcycle touring is particularly popular in countries with long coastlines and coastal roads, of which the Philippines ranks among the top ten in the world, at least for the former. But oddly enough, motorcycle tourism in the Philippines has remained quite the pipe dream—even more so for a complicated not-a-motorcycle like the Ural.
“I haven’t been allowed to ride these on national highways, or even areas like the Fort [in Metro Manila],” says Mayi. “They don’t understand that it isn’t a tricycle.”
It isn’t a tricycle, isn’t a motorcycle… but it also isn’t unlike either. The Ural is in the gray area of non-car vehicles, and in the Philippines, where our transportation system is easily confused, that has too easily translated into the most familiar: a tricycle. And by the LTO’s deﬁnition, it is a tricycle, even if the one we picture in our mind is a different kind of iconic in its aesthetic, dingy and decorated with stickers, sampaguita and the wear-and-tear of everyday hire.
Mayi’s breed of tricycle costs him an arm and a leg: the Ural is worth roughly US$9,999; more for more specialized editions. Current laws have national highways stopping vehicles that run at 400 cc and below, but the under-appreciated Ural has the engine capacity of 749 cc.
Not a car, but not a motorcycle. It’s a Ural.
When did our transportation laws get so lost that this alternative, and in so many ways superior, means of transportation got lumped in with the pedicabs, sputtering harmful emissions, huffing and puffing at 40? Who knows. But on the Puerto Princesa North Road, we were breezing at an average of 100 kilometers per hour for a little over 150 kilometers, stopping only for gas breaks, gear checks, and a hot lunch. Food was Vietnamese cuisine, of which Palawan does especially well; Palawan continues to have strong ties with this culinary culture thanks to the Vietnamese communities that have stayed and formed since the 1970s conﬂict in Vietnam.
And so we had a fitting lunch at an authentic Vietnamese-Filipino restaurant, like a subtle throw to the motorcycle country. The boys downed their warm banh mi sandwiches and fresh shrimp rolls, dipped in an ultra spicy sauce that had them coughing and sweating. “It’s okay,” Coco, one of the other riders, commented, pounding his chest a couple of times. “Pampabilis yun sa bikes.” And on we went.
Mayi is hopeful that what this dream needs to take off is a change of scenery, the quintessential alignment of place and bike. And for that he’s found our destination: San Vicente, Palawan, which many other people would call a pipe dream in itself. For almost ten years now, this slow, quiet town in the northern part of Palawan has been called time and time again The Next Big Thing, compared to big contenders like tourism hits Boracay and Siargao.
San Vicente, on paper, is trying hard to be noisy.
And all it takes is a visit to believe it: San Vicente boasts of the longest coastline in the Philippines, aptly named Long Beach; 14km of soft sand and crystal clear waters, which is almost thrice the length of Boracay’s White Beach at 5km. A little further down north, there is Port Barton, a former ﬁshing Village turned tourist hub that attracts primarily foreign backpackers; currently, and it has been since the 90s, tourism is the main source of economic activity in this area. But Port Barton is a bit of a distance from Long Beach, most popularly accessed via shuttle from El Nido or Puerto Princesa.
The most of San Vicente has remained underdeveloped. We came riding in on narrow roads, some still unpaved I counted carabaos as we entered; there were more animals than there were cars. For all the noise that surrounded it, San Vicente was relatively quiet.
And there has been noise. For the past three years, the municipality of San Vicente has been working fervently with the design experts at Palafox Associates, and the Tourism Infrastructure and Enterprise Zone Authority (TIEZA), crafting a masterplan that prioritizes ecotourism and environmental conservation, learning from both the successes and the failures of Port Barton, where the coastline has thinned with sporadic boat parking and smaller establishments. The new masterplan includes limitations such as a 507 meter setback from the high tide for permanent structures (the standard setback in the Philippines is 25 meters) and building heights that increase further away from the coastline.
So well-marketed, so diplomatic has San Vicente been in their approach that I spotted the word “awesome” on its website, and somehow it managed to get away with it. Their mayor, Carmela “Pie” Alvarez, was elected two terms past as the youngest mayor ever in the country’s history. Her concise social media profile reads: Palawan, mayor, Tequila Kween. Though I laughed, I think she got away with that, too. San Vicente, on paper, is trying hard to be noisy. And it works. Mayor Tequila Kween sold me, like many other people, on the Masterplan.
All the parts have been in place, ready to bake for quite some time. So why not? At least, beyond Port Barton, why does the town still appear untouched? From the moment that I heard about the myth of San Vicente, this has felt like the big question. And for all its glaring obviousness, no one seems to have quite a grasp of the answer. Only shapes of it.
Is it a question of time? Of priorities? Of business strategy?
“When the airport opens,” is Mayi’s, who has been invested in San Vicente for nine years. When the airport opens; this is the theoretical future that has been referred to time and time again by most of the people we meet on the way. Like many other smaller provinces in the country, San Vicente has an unfinished, inactive airport. The San Vicente Airport, which was constructed under the Arroyo administration, was put on hold indefinitely. It has somehow become the most tangible way to quantify when this place will be ready to be The Next Big Thing; a lot of the expectations have hinged on the idea that the town will become easily accessible, more than just a midpoint.
“They say they’re going to pave some of the roads, but there’s always going to be the off beaten path. And I’ll ﬁnd it.”<callout-alt-author>Mayi Picazo<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>
“Look what’s happened to El Nido,” Mayi says. “It’s awful. They didn’t account for all these people, so now there are always vans, ugly-looking colored vans, shuttling people to and from El Nido.” When you exit the Puerto Princesa Airport, there is an actual barrage of people, shuttle drivers and tour operators, asking, “El Nido? El Nido? El Nido?” so fervently that it’s become more of an exclamation. Toto, Mayi’s assistant and the best Ural driver on this trip, used to be one of them. “There are more than enough shuttles.”
The completion of San Vicente Airport, it is believed, will help this situation, giving tourists and alternative right on their current route. But the question of when has many answers. The municipal ofﬁce says to expect completion in early 2017.
“It’s a chicken-and-egg thing,” says Mayi, “Between the airline operators and the resorts. The airlines are waiting on the developers to start building, and vice versa.” It’s an explanation I heard many times, in different ways, from different people, during our trip. A decade seemed like an awfully long time to play chicken-and-egg. In any case, Mayi didn’t need to play chicken or egg. He had a plan in place, and it didn’t require an airport. It could ride.
But right now, the road remains a long one, at least a three to four-hour drive. It takes us the better half of a day to get from point A to point B, and by the end of it the boys are aching for their Salon Pas. Mayi plans to park his Urals in Puerto Princesa, and pick up guests from the active airport until he sees where the plans are going.
"I use my Urals to open up San Vicente to potential investors. I want them to see what it’s about.”<callout-alt-author>Mayi Picazo<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>
Eventually, he means to expand his business to include bikes for single riders. The current setup is not the best or the most economical for the Urals, having them brave the trip back and forth the highway every time. It’s also not where these babies get to shine. Coastlines and dirt roads: that was an interesting, challenging terrain, that was where the boys whooped and yelled the loudest. San Vicente had more than enough to last our three-day trip. I asked Mayi if he was worried that the roads, and the network, would change after the long-awaited development. “They say they’re going to pave some of the roads, but there’s always going to be the off beaten path. And I’ll ﬁnd it,” He laughs.
Philippine tricycles are currently banned in San Vicente, but motorcycles remain the main mode of land transportation, so much so that in Port Barton you can ﬁnd plenty of spots that loan motorcycles to tourists, mostly backpackers, who are looking for a way around. “In Puerto Princesa, there are a lot of motorcycle rentals but no tours. In my opinion, it’s actually dangerous to loan motorcycles [to just anyone] and you’re not even showcasing anything.
My point is to showcase San Vicente. Not even Palawan, just San Vicente. So right now, the Urals are like an investment; I use my Urals to open up San Vicente to potential investors. I want them to see what it’s about.”
And for that, there was no place much better than Long Beach, where the sky looked near pastel and the empty shore was ripe for a drive. There we were: four Urals in a row, pushing limits, egging each other on and making circles upon circles they called them donuts in the sand. If riders ever got tired, I knew then for certain that it was never during the ride. The sun seemed to set faster than usual that day, matching our speed, and before we knew it, it was time to go home. And like most travels, this one ended at the airport, even if it didn’t have the capacity to ﬂy us out.
The stopover at the unfinished San Vicente airport was almost serendipitous, just a suggestion by our new guide; the Urals and their riders had to leave a day prior, and I was back to four-wheeled vehicles, suffering a rather bad hangover for the wind in my hair and views unencumbered by windows. The long, completed runway was book-ended by mounds of dirt, dust in shades of orange hovering in the air. The glass-walled terminal was entirely empty and the airstrip was unoccupied; there wasn’t much beyond that to see, I commented. “No, but we drag race here sometimes,” our guide said offhandedly. It would have probably been a great place for a ride.
NOTE: The San Vicente Airport officially opened in June 2017 and has continued to receive flights to and from Puerto Princesa, Busuanga, and Clark.
Originally published in GRID Volume 01.