For a first time visitor to the Philippines, or any other less developed Asian country for that matter, it can be quite a confronting experience, and you may well feel out of your comfort zone. For a start, poverty is always very obvious. Unlike back in the West, many places don’t have drinkable tap water, 24/7 electricity or ATM machines. Don’t expect the day to day efficiency that you are used to. Even domestic airlines often run behind schedule. Make allowances and deal with it by being prepared.
On the plus side your money will go a long way in the Philippines, especially outside of Manila where hotels, food etc is a lot cheaper than back home.
The Philippines is lagging behind in their share of the Asian tourism market possibly due to a perception of poor infrastructure and uncertain safety. Do not let that prevent you from visiting this beautiful country and seeing all that it has to offer.
Flights by Cebu Pacific are always cheap, especially when they have promos. Buy a copy of the Lonely Planet Philippines to take with, do your research and have more fun in the Philippines.
Here are some pointers that might help you.
1. Manila. Landing in Manila, the most densely populated city in the world with it’s traffic, noise and pollution is not the best place to enjoy a relaxing vacation. If necessary stay overnight and then get a domestic flight to somewhere else, anywhere else.
Domestic flights are cheap, less than AU$100 and usually only 1 or 1.5 hours duration. At Manila Airport, fixed price transport to your hotel is expensive, taxis are much cheaper and if you are a senior citizen or PWD (Person With Disability) you can go straight to the front of the often very long queue.
2. The language. Apart from the official dialect of Tagalog, everybody speaks English which is the language of instruction in the schools. Of course some people speak it better than others. Most are used to the American accent, and sometimes they may struggle with an Australian or other strong accent (which they call “slang”). However most of those in the hospitality industry would be used to it, especially if you slow down your speech a little and speak clearly.
Another interesting aspect of this is if you are with a Filipino friend for example in a restaurant, and ask a question in English to someone, they will answer your Filipino friend in Tagalog rather than answer you in English. This is possibly a little annoying, but they sometimes are not confident enough to speak to you in English and often you will hear the phrase “nose bleed” which is their way of explaining that this might be a little too hard for them.
3. Noise. The Philippines is a very noisy place, especially in the cities. You are constantly subjected to noisy jeepneys, motorcycles, children, dogs, roosters, karaoke machines, churches, mosques and loud TVs. If you have noisy people in the next room of your hotel, it’s best to call reception and ask them to handle it. Always ask for a quiet room away from the elevator and just to be sure take some earplugs with you.
4. The people. Despite the poverty that is an inescapable reality of the Philippines, the people are basically happy and friendly and love to speak to foreigners. Knowing a few words of Tagalog will help greatly to break the ice with them. They are actually proud and grateful that you have come to visit their country and you will find them very hospitable. Being invited into their home is very common. Take some soft drink or beer and you’ll have some new best friends. Interacting with local people will make your vacation more memorable than just staying within the confines of your resort or the local mall.
One other thing, Filipinos don’t like confrontation. If you are having some problem with them don’t yell and shout and scream, be firm but try and talk calmly.
5. Accommodation. If it’s just an overnight or a couple of day’s stopover in one of the bigger cities, I stay at the local Red Planet hotel. All Red Planet hotels are the same design so you’ll know what to expect and although the rooms are small, they’re always clean and reasonably good value for money.
If you want more of a resort style holiday then you will have to get out of the big cities like Manila and Cebu. Although the big cities will have expensive hotels with a swimming pool, if you want more of a laidback experience I suggest a nice resort with their own beach eg on Mactan island just outside of Cebu City. It will work out better value for money.
Generally speaking, I have found that resorts owned by foreigners (usually with a Filipino wife) are better run and in better condition than those owned by locals. Perhaps that is why they usually advertise themselves as being foreigner owned.
6. Where to go. Without a doubt the Philippines has some of the best beaches and natural attractions in the world. In a country of 7,107 Islands this is to be expected. Unfortunately, as happens elsewhere as well (eg some parts of Thailand), the place’s popularity can lead to it’s downfall. Overdevelopment, greed and lack of environmental considerations can ruin what was formerly a beautiful place to visit.
In my opinion after 3 visits, I believe this is what has happened to the Philippines’ number 1 tourist destination of Boracay. Despite some recent improvements and more awareness of environmental sustainability, it’s probably too little too late. I am not suggesting that you do not go there, but rather giving you my own observations. If you do go, my suggestion of where to stay is Dave’s Straw Hat Inn, a mid range accommodation place where I have stayed every time and where you will be well looked after.
The island of Palawan has been voted as the best island in the world. It is the least developed major island of the Philippines and promoted as the last frontier. The main city in Palawan is Puerto Princesa and although not particularly beautiful, it has many good restaurants especially if you like seafood, and it is a good base to start off with. Honda Bay island hopping is the main tourist thing to do and further north is the heavily promoted Underground River in Sabang.
I always stay at the Deep Forest Garden Hotel in Puerto Princesa and I’m happy to recommend it.
El Nido is at the northern end of the island and it’s a must see place. Crystal clear water, beautiful islands and beaches, are perfect for swimming, snorkelling, diving and getting a tan.
Coron should also be high on your bucket list. Allow at least 3 or 4 days at each of these places and do the various island hopping tours on offer.
7. Safety. Australians should check the Smart Traveller website for the latest travel warnings, as although it is generally a safe place to travel, especially if you use common sense, there are some places that are not so safe to visit. Register your travel plans on that government website and ensure that you have adequate travel insurance. If you are in any doubt about safety, check with the locals. For example they may advise you to stay in the city rather than wander off into any remote areas.
Philippines is a maritime nation but has had more than it’s share of ferry and other maritime disasters. Bangkas (local types of outrigger boats travelling around and between the many islands) will mostly have safety vests on board so make sure you wear them (usually it’s a requirement). If the boat appears to be overloaded then speak up or get another one.
Boatmen are very skilled in what they do, but do not have much in the way of technology apart from their mobile phones. They are not always trained in first aid. The local coast guard will not allow boats to leave port in bad weather, but even if it’s fine in the morning, things can change, especially in the rainy season. Be aware.
8. The environment. Don’t throw your trash anywhere, even if the locals do it. In January 2017 Cagayan de Oro suffered severe flooding. This was made worse by the local’s bad habit of throwing their trash in drains and the river. Waters couldn’t get away due to the blockages.
Lead by example, even at the McDonalds by cleaning up your own table. Recycle if possible, and encourage locals to do the same, improvements start with the everyday person, often they just need some education to change their ways. Use re-cyclable shopping bags. Plastic bags are banned on Camiguin Island, maybe other islands too, and if they are not banned yet, they should be. Ask boatmen if they are going to drop their anchors where corals won’t get damaged.
9. Senior citizens seem to be treated with more respect than back in Australia. Often there are special queues at airports, fast food restaurants and government offices which will save you a lot of time. Not only that, senior’s get discounts more readily at many restaurants, hotels and on public transport. This is often as much as 20%. Sometimes they will explain that the seniors discount is only applicable to Filipino senior citizens, however it is worth asking, so take your seniors card with you and don’t be shy to show it.
10. Food. Traditionally Filipino food uses plenty of vinegar, sugar and salt and although the locals think their food is great, it may not be to everyone’s taste. That could explain why there are Thai restaurants everywhere in Australia these days but Filipino restaurants are few and far between. Nevertheless trying local cuisine is all part of the travel experience, right? Fortunately western style of food is also commonly available.
Additionally, all the major fast food chains are well represented and very popular. This could explain the increase in diabetes in the country and the number of obese children you will see eating at such places. In the shops, the cheaper white bread is commonly found. More healthy grain bread or “wheat bread” as they call it is harder to find, but sometimes is available depending where you are. There are a lot of very good bakeries, however most of the items contain sugar. I usually ask them for something that is not full of sugar.
If having ice in your drink, check that it is made from “mineral water” and not tap water, otherwise it’s easy to get sick.
Fruit in the Philippines is excellent, and about a quarter of the price you would pay back home. You’ll be able to eat fruits you’ve never even heard of before, let alone eaten. Bananas may have brown marks on the skin, but don’t let that fool you. In Australia, that’s a no no for consumers, but just try them, they are cheap and unlike in Australia where they are artificially ripened, they actually taste like bananas!
Pineapples are sweet and juicy and can be bought cheaply on the street where they will be cut, sliced and put in a bag ready to eat. Mangoes are my favourite fruit, the ones from Cebu are reputedly the best, and be sure to try a mango shake, so refreshing!
I always like to check out the local markets and see the fresh meat, vegetables, fruit and fish and the prices, so cheap compared to what we are used to.
I hope these tips and have been helpful. Always remember to make the most of your trip and have fun!
This post was contributed by Allan L — a retired Australian living in Sydney. Allan first went to the Philippines in 1980 and has been back many times since, travelling extensively, mainly through the Visayas and Mindanao regions. In the last 6 years he has been 10 times, usually staying at least one month at a time with his longest visit being 3 and a half months. Apart from knowing his way around the country well, he is also very familiar with Filipino customs and culture.