You want off the beaten track? I’ll have a recommendation for you! Visit Mabinay! Mabinay is located in the center of the Philippine island of Negros, near the border of Negros Oriental (a Visayan speaking province) and Negros Occidental (an Ilongo speaking province). It’s a lovely little town high up in Negros’ mountains, in the middle of the island’s sugar cane country. The town is three hours by bus from Dumaguete. You can stay in the simple but very affordable Traveler’s Inn near the market (350 Pesos/night, that’s 9 Aussie $, for that money you can’t even get a toilet flush in a hotel in Australia). Mabinay is not an absolute must-see destination, but a charming little town for those who want to experience something definitely not touristy. I visited the place because my lovely girlfriend is from there, but even for travelers without personal ties to the town it offers reasons to visit. One advantage is that you won’t see any obese, day-beer-drinking Western geriatric losers (WGLs) like on the Dumaguete boulevard. In fact I saw only one or two other foreigners in three visits to Mabinay.
You will stand out more than in the touristy parts of the Phils like Puerto Gallera or Mactan. But everyone in town is really friendly and, as usual in the Philippines, many people speak good English.
An attraction worth visiting is the Lingganay festival of lights, happening from the Sunday before Christmas for 2 weeks. The Philippines have a much happier Catholicism than Europe. There are many fun religious festivals in the Philippines, but this is a visually really enthralling one. It’s basically a Christmas-tree decoration contest!
Each group of barangays of the municipality of Mabinay decorates one tree. A barangay is a small district, the word is supposedly related to the word bargo which means boat: one barangay is a settlement of people who came with one boat. Now, the Christmas trees decorated at the Lingganay are so big and fancy that a few barangays get together to take care of one tree. The trees are wooden contraptions four or five meters high, amply equipped with colorful lights. The festival features maybe 20 of these trees, lighting up the whole town center. Lots of lit up toys are for sale too, and the Negros night is lit up like the Sydney Harbor Bridge for new year’s.
The festival draws a good crowd. People watching is fun, it’s easy to chat up the locals. You can get beer and barbecued chicken snacks in the festival area. On-stage show performances and fireworks round off the program.
In the morning of the next day, the trees which were so fantastically lit the night before looked awfully sad, just like any odd wooden contraptions without Christmasy glory to them. No crowd was admiring the trees, just a few stray dogs strolled around them. Mopeds were parked on the fences surrounding the light-artworks, and the festival area still showed the festa-goer’s trash. Still, a stroll to the market next to the festival area tuned out to be interesting. Locally grown coffee, tobacco, and chocolate (in the form of pressed pills, for making excellent hot chocolate) are available at really cheap prices.
In addition, Mabinay has some wonderful caves of several spelunking difficulty levels, and the Mabinay springs, cold springs where you can swim. A two-day visit is probably the right amount of time to spend in Mabinay.