Stephanie Dychiu BBC Top Gear - Baler Road Trip

Helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now shot on beach featured in this story can be viewed on this YouTube link.

by Stephanie Dychiu

Decades after the greatest war movie of all time was filmed in the Philippines, Top Gear drives up to the town that made it all happen.

When five-year-old Sofia Coppola first landed on Baler in 1976 for the filming of her father’s anti-war opus Apocalypse Now, she took one look at the nipa huts, greenery, and carabaos then said to her mother: “It looks like the Disneyland Jungle Cruise”.

Fast forward to the movie’s famous air raid sequence—with a soldier high on acid surfing on the beach while a hive of helicopter gunships above him annihilates a nearby “Vietcong” village—and Baler is suddenly as far away from Disneyland as any place can get. The ruthless Lt. Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall) orders his men to play Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries from the helicopter loudspeakers to add drama to the carnage. As the massacre ensues, he utters the classic line: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

What was it about Baler that made Francis Ford Coppola decide it was the perfect backdrop for the greatest attack sequence ever captured on film?

It all goes back to the character of Lt. Kilgore. In the movie, Kilgore didn’t care about the war, all he cared about was surfing. When someone tells him about a seaside village where the waves can rise up to six feet, Kilgore plots an invasion to claim this surfing nirvana for himself.

That slice of surfing heaven wasn’t just a figment of Coppola’s imagination. It actually exists in real life. Along Sabang Beach in Reserva, the Aguang river mouth meets the waters of the Pacific Ocean in an area that used to be known as “Kagewad”. This spot was re-named “Charlie’s Point” after Hollywood came to town.

Charlie who?

Vietnam War geeks would know that “Charlie” was the G.I. moniker for the Vietcong. In Apocalypse Now, Lt. Kilgore decides to wipe out the Vietnamese because—well, “Charlie don’t surf”. The fantastic waves near the village were wasting away.
Fortunately, the irony of Kilgore’s “Charlie don’t surf” statement was not lost on the public psyche. Years later it would be immortalized in a song of the same title by the British punk rock band, The Clash.

But what if the present-day Charlie—meaning you, the quintessential couch potato—really don’t surf? Will you be blown to bits with napalm if you dare set foot on Baler?
Quite the contrary. What follows is a simple guide to enjoying Baler for all the Charlies who don’t surf. It is easy to get caught up in Apocalypse Now fever when planning a trip to Baler, but whatever you do, don’t play Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries during the eight-hour drive up. A British organization recently reported that this song is the most dangerous piece of music you can listen to while driving. It’s way too effective at bringing out your killer instincts.

The usual route from Metro Manila to Baler is a 120km drive to Cabanatuan City via the North Luzon Expressway and Maharlika Highway. From Cabanatuan, it’s another 110km to Baler via Palayan City, 60km of which is a dizzying stretch of zigzag road that will greatly test your patience, eyesight, and driving skills. (To get in shape, try criss-crossing EDSA on your car from Makati to Quezon City and back. Do this six times, then pop a Valium to soothe your frazzled nerves.)
Baler and the neighboring towns of Casiguran, Dilasag, Dinalungan, Dingalan, Dipaculao, Maria Aurora, and San Luis are rich with coves, reefs, caves, beaches, and waterfalls that are a joy to explore on a 4x4. A vehicle with four-low transfer case or gearbox (or low gearing) will be necessary if you want to experience driving on Ampere, a trippy little beach in Dipaculao that is entirely covered by piles of smooth stones instead of sand. The bloodcurling screams of your 4x4 when it chews up the stones to get near the water are not to be missed.

It depends what you’re after. If you want to surf (or ogle surfers), the best time to go is between September to February. Surf competitions are held during this time when the ocean swells are at their scary best. With busloads of tourists spilling into town, this is also the perfect time to socialize. But if you’re all about zen, organic food, and the meaning of life, go during the low season between March and August when you can have the beaches almost entirely to yourself.


Bay’s Inn (80 Sitio Labasin, Barangay Sabang, Baler, Aurora; Phone: 042-2094312; Mobile: 0918-9266697) Rooms for two with fan and bath go for P300-350 a night. For an extra P400, you get air-con and TV. Bay’s Inn is one of the most popular places to stay in Baler, so don’t expect peace and quiet if you stay here during peak season.

Bahia de Baler (Sabang Beach, Baler, Aurora; Mobile: 0920-5550451) Bahia de Baler is a lot quieter than Bay’s Inn, but also more expensive. Single and double rooms with TV, private bath, and air-con cost P1,200 a night. However, there is one large dorm-style room that can fit ten people in double-decker beds, which costs only P2,500 a night. If you are traveling with a large group, you should definitely book this room and book it fast because it is the only one of its kind in the whole resort. Breakfast is included in the room cost.

The lively restaurant of Bay’s Inn is the undisputed best place to eat in Baler. The dishes range from P75-150 each with servings that can be good enough for two. Be sure to try the Crispy Buntot. This is a pork dish like crispy pata, except you’ve got buntot (tail) instead of pata (knuckles). A good compromise for the contra-Atkins crowd that’s looking for a good cholesterol fix minus the guilt.
Cheaper and less spectacular eats are available at the Baler town proper. There is a small row of pleasant carinderias near the museum where a full meal can cost as little as P50.


Beaches There is a wide variety of beaches to check out in Baler and its environs. The most obvious one is the black-sand Sabang Beach right in front of Bay’s Inn and Bahia de Baler. Less accessible but prettier than Sabang is the white-sand Cemento Beach, a favorite among surfers, snorkelers, and divers. Then you have Canawer Beach in Dilasag and Dinadiawan Beach in Dipaculao, which both claim to be the Boracay of Aurora province. Finally, there is the aforementioned Ampere Beach in Dipaculao, which doesn’t have black sand, doesn’t have white sand, but has stones. You can spend many cathartic hours playing stone-throwing games here.

Waterfalls When the sun and salt water become too much to take, scoot over to the soothing freshwater falls nearby. Dilaguidi Falls in Dilasag at the foot of the Sierra Madres has a fifty-centimeter-thick wall of cool water. Bulawan Falls in Dinalungan was declared the cleanest and greenest inland body of water in Regions III and IV. You can also practice your dive from the twenty-five-meter high Laccab Falls in Dipaculao.

Caves The town of Dingalan is home to the Lamao Caves which are located on a seaside cliff. Bancas like to dock in the small beaches between the caves. A waterfall can be found inside one of the caves, while another has a steady shower of water that makes it feel like it is raining inside. Turtles and sharks have been spotted near these caves.

To organize a trip to Baler and nearby attractions, contact Noel Dulay of the Maria Aurora Outdoors Club at 09193724764. You can also contact professional tour guide (and expert surfer) Charles “Mac” Ritual at 09198131962.

(This article originally appeared in BBC Top Gear, October 2004.)