As Europe is getting colder my thoughts run back to warmer climates and to our tropical adventures in the land of 7107 islands. To sum it up in one word would be to say it is fascinating, but you cannot stick to one word when describing the Philippines. The country is as diverse as the islands it encompasses, true it is absolutely beautiful and full of wonderful discoveries in whichever direction you end up doing your island hopping, although at times and in certain places it can be a bit overwhelming, but you can avoid that if you stay away from big cities like Manila and Cebu City. The people are generally very friendly, especially in Palawan. Sometimes they will try to rip you off but that’s one of the “perks” of a tourist. Travelling in the Philippines is very cheap, cheaper than in China.
We went there for the Chinese New Year, an untraditional choice I know but when you have got -15 – 20C on a fine February day in Beijing and the bitter cold makes you literally run from place to place, just admiring the crazy New Year fireworks is celebration enough. So off we went to the country of sun, crystal clear water and paradise islands.
First of all about the visa. Most of the “Western world” enjoys visa-free access for 21 days. We coming from the “black list” countries need to acquire a visa. But don’t worry it usually goes very easy.
Now about the travel guide. The best researched book on the Philippines is the “Philippines Travel Guide by Jens Peters“. He has been travelling to the Philippines more than 60 times in the course of 10 years. The book is very comprehensive.
How we acquired this book has a funny story attached to itself. In China it is not easy to buy foreign-language books, they have a limited assortment. Of course there is the wonderful invention of the 20th century – Amazon. But even they didn’t carry this book. So I found Jens Peters’ e-mail and wrote him. And he replied very promptly and gave the contact of a distributor in the Asia and through them we got the book delivered to our first hotel in Manila on the day of our arrival. It involved some coordination but in the end everything worked out fine.
Before you embark on your adventures don’t forget to stock up on sunscreen, sunburn cream (if it gets to it) and mosquito repellent. All of these you can purchase in the Philippines, usually big shopping malls have everything you need, although for sunscreen the choice was limited and we were left with the only option of SPF 50 – which might explain our lack of golden holiday tan. For the sunburn cream I can recommend a local Philippine made aloe and herbal treatment. It comes in plastic tubes and the liquidish gel is brown.
When to Go
Having a tropical climate, the Philippines enjoys an average temperature of 25C throughout the year and two well-expressed seasons – dry (January to June) and wet (July to December). We were there in February and the weather was perfect.
Where to Go
Oh, this is a tough question, with 7107 islands to choose it is not easy. However only about 2000 islands are inhabited, in addition only about 500 are larger than 1 square kilometer. So that should ease up your choice a bit. We did 4 islands in 12 days and that was pretty tight-packed but amazing nonetheless. Later I will blog about the specific islands we visited to reveal the wonderful secrets hidden in each of them.
If you check country-issued travel warnings you will hear frequently about Mindanao and Sulu regions in the south. They keep having recurring violent outbreaks so if you plan to go there check the timing.
Travelling in the Philippines involves a bit of coordination. It is not exactly hassle-free to navigate between the huge network of buses, ships and planes. Flying is cheap, given that you book in a good time of course, and the cabin crew is super cheerful, sometimes they will even sing for you and organize different games. If you choose to fly don’t forget that in addition to your flight ticket you need to purchase a travel tax coupon (in 2010 it costed PHP 200 for local flights and PHP 750 for international).
What to Eat
Filipino food is absolutely delicious. It varies from region to region so make sure you taste the local dishes wherever you travel. One main dish is a national standard – Adobo and it tastes heavenly with meat and veggies cooked in vinegar, pepper and garlic. This was sure our favourite along with fresh supply of exotic fruits. The mangos… oh I can still taste them!
For a juice try kalamansi! Kalamansi are local tiny lemons and the juice made from them is super refreshing and tasty!!! For beer lovers San Miguel is the best local offer.
It is called Philippine Peso (PHP). EUR 1 = PHP 60. You can pay with international credit cards in many big cities, however if you intend to travel to smaller islands it is a good idea to carry cash.
The official language is Filipino, which carries some Spanish influence. The majority of people speak English. Here is a selection of words that might come handy while you travel:
Mabuhay – hello
Paalam, bye – goodbye
Kumusta – how are you?
Mabuti – well
Salamat – thank you
Oo – yes
Hindi – no
Magkano – how much?
Saan – where?
Mura – cheap
Mahal – expensive
Another word that will quickly enter your local dictionary is jeepney (pictured in the above left corner). Once inherited from the US military after WWII, this is a peculiar form of transport, very colourful, very loud and very omnipresent. One would even talk about a certain jeepney fashion, when the hundreds of noisy vehicles hit the streets of Manila’s catwalk, each trying to outbeat the other with colours, designs, insignia and the number of passengers they manage to cram all over the vehicle. Some will consider a ride in a jeepney an absolute adventure if you are not falling out of course, others a complete nerve-wrecking experience. Whatever the case is, jeepneys are an inseparable part of Filipino daily life. When riding a jeepney it is generally advised to try to keep your belongings as close to you as possible. The best seat is in the front next to the driver where you get some kind of safety and privacy.
Taxis provide yet another spur of adrenalin – besides the crazy and chaotic traffic, it is a matter of choosing the right taxis and not getting ripped off as a result. All the taxis are said to have A/C and meters, now make sure that you have the meter turned on, otherwise you will end up paying multiple times the price. The going rate in 2010 was PHP 30 as a fixed charge and PHP 2.50 for every 300 m thereafter. When you land in Manila’s Ninoy Acquino International Airport make sure you get to the departure hall and take a metered taxi (white ones) from there as it will be much cheaper than going with the airport couponed taxis (yellow ones). We didn’t know this of course and ended up paying EUR 12 for a ride (the taxi meter was running like on a horse track) that otherwise should have been max EUR 3.
Another thing you will notice quickly in Manila and other big cities is the presence of police, safety guards etc. heavily armed everywhere – airport, big shopping malls, hotels, restaurants.
So much for the general intro, now the islands are waiting for us