The other Southeast Asia, the Philippines is where Asia and Europe collide, over a sprawl of sand-circled tropical islands. Here, Catholic traditions meld with animist rituals and Islamic customs, creating a surreal melting pot that is unlike anywhere else in Southeast Asia.
With 7,107 islands, it’s hardly surprising that many of the Philippines’ most stunning attractions can be found in or around the sea. Boracay and other islands are ringed by some of the world’s most immaculate beaches and the waters offshore are a diver’s paradise, with pristine reefs, astounding tropical fish, migrating whale sharks and wrecks from WWII.
Graced by dazzling beaches, year-round sun and numerous opportunities for diving, island-hopping and surfing, the Philippines has long attracted a steady stream of foreign visitors. Yet there’s far more to these islands than sand and snorkelling. Beyond the coastline are places to visit of a different nature; mystical tribal villages, ancient rice terraces, jungle-smothered peaks and crumbling Spanish churches. Look closer and you’ll see the influence of the island’s rich stew of cultures – Islamic, Malay, Spanish and American – in an exuberant array of festivals, tantalizing food and elegant colonial towns that has more in common with Latin America than the rest of Asia.
The Filipino people, who speak more than 150 languages and dialects, are variously descended from early Malay settlers, Muslim Sufis from the Middle East, Spanish conquistadors and friars, and later Chinese traders. It’s an old cliché, but largely true: Filipinos take pride in making visitors welcome, even in the most rustic barrio home. Equally important is the culture of entertaining, evident in the hundreds of colourful fiestas that are held throughout the country, many tied to the Roman Catholic calendar. Never far behind partying is eating and Filipino food is heavily influenced by Spanish and native traditions – expect plenty of fresh fish, roasted meats (pork and chicken) and unlike the rest of Asia, a plethora of addictive desserts, many utilizing the vast array of tropical fruits on offer.
It can’t been denied that the Philippines has a seedy side – the sex industry grew up to service American GIs during the Vietnam War – but it’s easy to avoid this gloomy scene and find more wholesome nightlife, where live bands perform note-perfect covers of any song you could name and even the smallest, palm-thatched village has a karaoke bar.
Most tourists do not need a visa to enter the Philippines for up to 21 days, though a passport valid for at least six months and an onward plane or ship ticket to another country are required.
You can apply for a 59-day visa from a Philippine embassy or consulate before you travel. A single-entry visa, valid for three months from the date of issue, costs around US$40, and a multiple-entry visa, valid for one year from the date of issue, around US$90. Apart from a valid passport and a completed application form (downloadable from some Philippine embassy websites) you will have to present proof that you have enough money for the duration of your stay in the Philippines.
Your 21-day visa can be extended by 38 days (giving a total stay of 59 days) at immigration offices (see relevant chapters). The charge for this is around P2000, and you may be asked if you want to pay a P500 Express fee that is supposed to guarantee the application is dealt with within 24 hours. If you don’t pay the fee, the process can take at least a week. Note that it pays to be presentably dressed at immigration offices, as staff might refuse to serve you if you turn up wearing a vest, shorts or flip-flops.
Many travel agents in tourist areas such as Malate in Manila and Boracay offer a visa extension service, saving you the hassle of visiting immigration centres. Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to use one of the fixers that hang around immigration offices, particularly in Manila. The “visa” they get you is often a dud and you run the risk of being detained and fined when you try to leave the country.
Living and Working in the Philippines
Opportunities to work in the Philippines are limited. Most jobs require specialist qualifications or experience and, unlike other parts of Asia, there’s no market for teaching English as a foreign language. One possibility is to work for a diving outfit as a dive master or instructor. Rates of pay are low, but board and lodging may be provided if you work for a good operator or resort in a busy area (Boracay or Puerto Galera, for instance). For more on learning to dive. Some international organizations also offer voluntary placements in the Philippines.
Study opportunities are also limited. There are a number of language schools, mostly in Manila, where you can learn Tagalog; one of the biggest is Languages Internationale at 926 Arnaiz Ave in Makati
The Philippine currency is the peso. One peso is divided into 100 centavos, with notes in denominations of P20, 50, 100, 200, 500 and 1000. Coins come in values of 25 centavos, P1, P5 and P10. At the time of writing the exchange rate was around P43 to US$1, P67 to £1 and a little less than P58 to the euro.
It’s best to arrive with some local currency. Otherwise you can easily withdraw cash at ATMs found in cities and tourist destinations all over the country, but not in less visited areas such as the interior of Mindanao, the northern mountains, areas of Palawan outside Puerto Princesa and Coron Town, and in remote parts of the Visayas. It’s best to use ATMs at major banks, and preferably in big cities, because these machines tend to be more reliable than provincial ones, which are often “offline” – because there’s no cash in them, the computer has crashed or a power cut has affected their operation. Credit cards are accepted by most hotels and restaurants in cities and tourist areas, though the smaller hotels may levy a surcharge if you pay by card.
Travellers’ cheques are safer to carry than cash, though note that you can only change them at a limited number of banks in Manila and in a few tourist haunts such as Malate and Boracay. It’s best to bring US-dollar denominations from the major issuers – Thomas Cook, Visa or American Express.
The Philippine Department of Tourism (DoT; whttp://www.wowphilippines.com.ph and whttp://www.tourism.gov.ph) has a small number of overseas offices where you can pick up glossy brochures and get answers to general pre-trip questions about destinations, major hotels and domestic travel. These offices are not so helpful, however, when it comes to information about places off the beaten track. The DoT has offices throughout the Philippines, but most of them have small budgets and very little in the way of reliable information or brochures. The best source of up-to-date information on travelling in the Philippines is guesthouses and hotels that cater to travellers, most of which have notice boards where you can swap tips and ideas.
Weather and Climate
Luckily, the weather in the Philippines does not reach a point of extreme hot or extreme cold temperatures, so you can easily adapt to the tropical weather. The best time to go is between November and May. They also have a monsoon season over there and loads of rain between June and October. But honestly, I don’t care, it wouldn’t stop me from going there if I would have a chance. Nothing is more magical than swimming in the sea on a rainy day, the sun shines through the clouds and the water is 30°C… Anyway, the weather is pretty much unpredictable since global warming.
Another thing you have to do in the Philippines is riding in or on a jeepney! Why? Because it’s fun! It’s cheap and it’s windy, no need of an air conditioner!
But what are these jeepneys and where do they come from? The U.S troops left old military jeeps back in WW2. The Filipinos opened the back, added two benches, gave them a colorful and unique design, decorative ornaments, flashy paintings, stars, dots and sometimes even extra lights. And just like that, the Philippine jeepney became a cultural sign of the country. An average jeepney can carry 16 – 20 passengers, two up front next to the driver and 14 – 18 seated in the back facing each other on two benches. Well, that’s the normal case, but often you’ll see an extra body hanging outside or onto the back, or people even occupy the roof. For some reason, mostly these “outside” passengers are young and male. You will be surprised, how much a jeepney can carry. To get a sense of the place from the local’s perspective and to see how people interact, Jeepneys are a fantastic way to explore the country. So don’t forget to hop on one whenever you have the chance!
To visit the Philippines is a long trip from the United States and Europe. It is about 9,000 miles from New York City to the Philippine capital of Manila, for example, a flight of about 19 to 20 hours. From Los Angeles, it would only be about a 14-15 hour flight, and about the same from London, England.