Undoubtably one of my top 5 destinations, period, the Philippines bring travellers a promise of unspoilt beauty - but also logistical headaches in equal measure.
Where to start?
As a young and naive traveller, I found myself furiously googling everything I could to find out about the Philippines before Tara and I left Hong Kong to explore these exotic Pacific ocean islands. We’d scheduled some time in the region as part of our south-east Asian content tour for our agency, in which we were shooting content outside of London for both our CA.L portfolio and also current clients.
Unlike our research into Hong Kong, which was well documented and relatively stress-free, researching the Philippines became somewhat of a time-intensive task and quite frankly borderline part-time job. We quickly realised some key things:
The Philippines is bloody BIG
No one really knows much about it and cannot tell you which islands are the best for you to go to
Getting around in the Philippines is, at best, a fundamental test of patience and character strength.
A bit of background
Do let me elaborate.
The Philippines is a set of over 7000 islands in the Pacific Ocean, snugly sandwiched between Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan. Oh, and the notorious Pacific Ring of Fire which sees many of the world’s largest earthquakes and typhoons. Forget about that for a second.
Tourism mainly manifests in the north, which is traditionally considered by locals as more politically stable than the south. What struck me about these islands compared to other south-east Asian countries I’d hit up in the past was the overwhelming Spanish & Christian influences, looming over from a long expired membership to the Spanish Empire for over 300 years during the 16th-19th centuries.
Unlike the rest of South East Asia, you won’t find reams of ornate temples here, but rather stark catholic churches and Spanish-influenced architecture & culture, from the currency of Pesos right through to the names of the places you go to (e.g. Las Cabanas beach, El Nido).
Where to go
In the north, there’s a couple of key areas. :
Manila- the capital, and somewhere you probably don’t want to be holidaying
Palawan- the tourism* capital, and somewhere you probably do want to be holidaying
Cebu- your gateway to the rest of the world having one of very few international airports in the Philippines
Siargao- the edgier alternative to Palawan for tourism*
Boracay- where one of our friends ended up on a Facebook page called ‘Drunk Girls in Boracay’.
*Tourism refers to an area with a noticeable density of travellers, which is definitely not the same as the mass commercialisation and overcrowded definition of tourism we see in many other south east Asian hot spots e.g. Phuket, Phi Phi Islands, Siam Reap etc.
From what we’d read online, we’d seen many conflicting accounts about which islands to go to and it soon became evident from the apparent lack of infrastructure and travel between them that we would never be able to squeeze in all the main islands within the two weeks that we had. We needed to prioritise, which ultimately came down to gut feel and ease of access.
We opted eventually to do Palawan, arriving in Coron via Cebu and then taking a 3 day island-hopping boat expedition up to El Nido. From there, we would fly back to Cebu (it’s either Cebu or Manila if you want to get an international flight) and go home. We promised ourselves we’d hit Siargao, Boracay and Moalboal when we went back another year…
What I wish we’d known before we went: do’s & don’t’s
DO: go on TAO
Our 3 day boat expedition was through a company called TAO, one of many businesses offering the same thing- yet the clear leader due to it’s incredible focus on improving the lives of Filipino fishermen and making the local ecosystem a better place.
All former employees have suffered the consequences of a declining and increasingly dangerous fishing industry, with TAO providing a safe alternative career prospect. The whole operation was impeccably managed and we got to learn from and laugh with the ex-fisherman who manned our boat and lead our expedition. We camped on the beach in wicker huts under the stars, and apart from the odd rat, Tara and I agreed it was one of the best things we’ve ever done in each of our lives.
Check TAO out here.
DON’T: listen to what people say about the food
This is a candid blog so I’ll be honest- we’d heard mixed reviews about the food in the Philippines. However, if you like fresh out the ocean fish, rice, sweet fruits, vegetable curries and rum- you’ll have a fantastic time. Our expectations were certainly exceeded and I proudly managed to last until the penultimate day without getting violently sick.
In El Nido we were also surprised to find several western style brunch/dinner locations- try Taste for smoothie bowls, Happiness for incredible Israeli inspired dishes, Big Bad Thai for awesome edgy Thai food and Altrove for pizza- yes, pizza- some of the best stone-baked pizza we’ve ever had.
DO: go to a local fiesta at any cost and expect to dance
Long story short, during one of our beach camping nights on TAO we ended up getting a couple of fishing boats in the pitch black of night to hit up a local town where a fiesta was happening. There’s many fiestas around the different islands, but we were reliably informed by our local host that this village only hosts a fiesta once a year- pretty lucky for us.
Arriving as what can only be described as a bunch of losers to a school disco, we were horrified to find a huge basketball filled with locals- all staring at us- and absolutely no music. Opting for the safety of a local stall selling 50 Peso beers and brandy by the litre, we got our drinks and got on with it. Our local host assured us everything would be ok, and only when the music started did we really believe him.
Hundreds of locals flocked to the centre of the basketball court dance floor and broke it down with some of the best dancing we’d ever seen. Filipino dancing is incredible, a cross between Shakira and vogueing- I know it sounds a bit wild but message me and I’ll send you a video to prove it.
Men and women, children, the elderly, everyone was on their feet and making us feel extremely welcome asking us to dance and get involved, applauding our best efforts to not look like dads. It really was embarrassing to be English, where our only dance floor currency is the slut drop and I didn’t even know what the conversion rate was. A young Filipino man with the patience of a saint took one for the team and taught me to cha-cha, and I danced, and sweated, like I’d never done before.
We also managed to blag our way into the Red Bull Cliff Diving after party, which is a whole other story. Sergio, I can fully confirm your whiskey pouring skills are as strong as your 26m triple back flip. We’ll never forget you.
DON’T: expect hot water, power or reliable WiFi
Yes… these are luxuries in the Philippines, and I did worry that I would maybe go insane. Turns out that you are having so much fun and meeting such great people that you don’t need the WiFi- provided you can afford to take a couple of days off work. And when we did need to work, we’d made sure to book into a hostel with stellar WiFi reviews- Spin Hostel in El Nido.
Additionally, it’s so hot (35 degrees and upwards during our stay) that you don’t want a hot shower anyway. And your phone battery lives a lot longer when you’re not constantly scrolling on instagram so the power’s kind of OK too.
Air-con is a must though.
DO: book your flight out before you go
Time for some home truths: unless you have infinite time and budget, you will not be able to do every island. You need to make a choice, and if you asked me for my totally biased opinion I’d recommend Palawan any day.
It’s not easy to island hop, the lack of infrastructure means you can’t just book an e-ticket the night before for a ferry- plus the islands are quite far away from each other so most of the time flying is the only option.
Although it’s nice to have flexibility while you’re there, you will need to show proof of booking for a return flight out of the Philippines at the airport upon arrival else you will not be allowed to enter the country. Tara and I found this out the hard way at the check-in desk, where we held a laptop in one hand and sat on our (of course 10kg overweight) suitcase on the worlds worst wifi to try and hurriedly book a flight out.
DON’T: be surprised by 2 hour traffic or 4 hour delays
Again, to be candid- nothing works. Queues are inevitable, delays are expected, complications are standard. An example of this is that you can’t do a domestic transfer straight after an international flight (to the best of our knowledge- all options involved leaving the airport and then checking straight back in again at a different terminal a mile away).
We also frequently got hit with ‘sorry you need to check in again over there because our system can’t do it’ or ‘can you just pay this random tax’- in the end you just do it and stop getting annoyed about it. And of course, waiting 30 mins for a taxi to even arrive, let alone get you anywhere- all becomes standard.
We learned to take it for what it is. This country is getting it’s act together ready for tourism and so far it’s doing OK. You’re not in a position to complain once you see how beautiful this place is.
Impeccably beautiful. Costly and slow to get around. Culture from a hybrid colonial heritage and lifestyle like no other we’ve seen before. Just ahead of the tourism curve so boasting a relatively well balanced mix of unspoilt beauty and near-ready infrastructure.
If you get the chance, do it.