Image: Mt Mayon, an active volcano in Bicol as it simmers away, lava lighting up the rim at night.
So you’re thinking about adding the Philippines to your list of Asian holiday destinations. Great decision. This article will strive to give you all that essential info you might not glean from normal travel guides. After all, how could they possibly know?
Let’s jump right in, should we. Holidaymakers expecting to sample Asia are in for a rude shock. Yes, the scenery is Asian, the rice fields and palm trees are all strategically placed alongside stunning beaches to create the impression you’re in Asia, but it’s just clever window-dressing..
The truth is, that whilst enroute here, your plane was diverted and you will shocked to find yourself in the middle of Latin America. Mexico would probably be my closest bet.
Wake up to lazy little villages, basking in the sun, with locals enjoying siestas in hammocks, sombreros shading their eyes against the midday heat. Enjoy fun filled evenings with dancing, singing, laughing, smiling and genuinely happy local revellers, only to keen to share their local poison and meager snacks with you.
Throw in the the local Tagalog language, peppered with Spanish and the illusion is complete, right down to the ever popular village fiestas which can carry on for days.
Even weddings and funerals are stretched out to maximise the eating, drinking and dancing, all to the accompaniement of more singing.
You my friend, have just entered the Latin American heart of Asia. Welcome to the Philippines, where it really is more fun, the girls really are as pretty as they say and yes, the local grog will kill a mule, so imbibe with caution.
Now we’ve established where you are, let’s examine those essential survival tips crucial to the avid backpakers and holidaymakers who steer clear of resorts and favour the back roads.
Pack a knife, scissor, blowtorch or some form of cutting tool. You’re going to need it and if you’re stopped at customs on your journey simply explain you’re on your way to the Philippines. They’ll wave you through with a knowing smile.
Most foodstuffs in the Philippines are wrapped in plastic or foil or both. Careful instructions, arrows and even the occasional indentation on the packaging will indicate where to tear to open. Best of luck. In a culture that doesn’t use knives I often wonder how locals manage to access the contents of the seven million packaged products on offer.
No amount of pulling, biting, ripping, wrestling or even jumping will induce the sealed foil to give way to allow you access to cholesterol laden goodies inside. It’s the foil from hell, Chuck Norris proof packaging capable of surviving a nuclear blast. Eventually, after having exhuasted yourself you will turn in search of a knife… Guess what?
If you’re vegan, prepare for a relatively difficult time finding food here. Chicken and pork permeate almost all the prepared dishes on offer, followed by fish in every imagineable guise. For the carnivorous holidaymakers, welcome home.
Food is cheap, abundant and yummy. You can sample anything from fried chicken to grilled pork, duck, goat and fish without having to leave the sidewalk. If you’re a little squeamish, beware, as nothing goes to waste here, leading to some interesting dishes for the brave of heart to sample.
Filipinos love to eat. Possibly the only activity they enjoy more is taking photos of their food to post on Facebook. Restuarants are abundant as are food chains such as McDonalds and Jollibee. My advice is to avoid these, try the smaller local eateries and street vendors if you want to sample real Filipino food.
On the subject of social media, every Filipino has Facebook. You can spot their accounts by the multitude of selfies and, you guessed it, photos of food. The social media platform has consumed the public and everyone lives on their phones, 24/7. Having Facebook is a must here, especially if you intend to extend your circle of friends. WhatsApp and other networking platforms are only just starting to gain traction in the market and most locals will look at you in confusion if you mention these.
Data is cheap, around $2 for 2gig and you can pick up a free sim on arrival at the airport, opt for Globe or Smart or both if your phone supports dual SIM,s. Calls are expensive, but bundled packages will offer data and free text messaging, with of course, free Facebook and Messenger.
Once you’ve landed here, the inevitable bus journey will ensue. It’s time to get out your jumper and blanket. What’s that? You didn’t pack any as the Philippines is tropical? Ha, perpare to freeze.
It’s easy finding the bus terminals, just look for a line of shivering penguins, rapidly moving in the opposite direction in search of somewhere to thaw. Buses come in two varieties here, luxury air conditioned versions or the cheaper, find an open window version. My advice is to forgo the comfort and opt for one of these.
If not, prepare to freeze. The very pleasant waft of cold air that greets you on entering the bus very soon turns polar. Set to maximum and unavoidable, no matter where you sit, gale force streams of frozen air are expelled from every possible point on the bus, all directed at your seat. I suspect there is probably a vent under your seat as well, so don’t even go there.
In less than a minute, pleasantly cool becomes cold and not long after foreigners can be heard across the bus, teeth chattering away. The locals are fine, they have come prepared. Blankets, jumpers and fleece lined jackets surround you and you will be forgiven for wondering if the smiles you are being showered with are ones of pity. The t shirt and shorts suddenly don’t seem like such a bright idea. Consider yourself fore warned.
And so, on to language. Most of the locals can get by with a little broken English. Speak slowly and clearly and about fifty percent will at least attempt a response. Filipinos are incredibly friendly, warm and welcoming and love foreigners, so they are always going to try to help you. Even if they haven’t a clue what you’ve just asked them.
If your looking for an item in a shop, carry on looking. Resist the temptation to ask staff, who will almost always shake their hand slightly, and utter a single word, Wala. This means nothing, no, finished, dont have, etc and is used all the time. The product you are looking for is in most instances right behind you, they simply didn’t understand and this phrase supplies an instant escape from a discussion they would far rather avoid.
You’ll soon hear the all too popular phrase, nosebleed, indicsting the speaker is suffering a mental meltdown trying to remember the correct English word or phrase. Most of this is actually a direct result of the Filipino being incredibly shy. Get them drunk and suddenly they are able to converse using the Queen’s English.
Asking for directions is of course fraugt with danger in a country where someone would rather try and help, even if they haven’t a clue and tend to use their right hand to signal left or vice versa. Preare to get spectacularly lost if you haven’t packed your handy GPS or smart phone.
Getting lost here though is one of the most enjoyable things to do in the Philippines and definitely the best way to discover all the hidden treasures the country has to offer. Safety is never an issue. I have lived here for for over a year now and never once felt uncomfortable or threatened in any way.
Of course this does not apply to big cities, the likes of Manila etc where the back alleys and side streets can and often do harbour an unpleasant element. Treat these large sprawling masses as you would any large city anywhere in the world.
Go rural and you’re good. Particularly in remote areas, where the sight of a white or black face is still a rarity. Your pointy nose will be welcomed with open arms, families will embrace you like a long lost relative and the small groups of men drinking Emperidor will wave you over to join them. I did mention earlier the dangers of drinking the local alcohol, which although quite palatable, contains a horse which will often kick you repeatedly in the head the following morning.
Stick to the Redhorse if you can. It’s a strong, very pleasant local beer without the nasty side effects of Ginebra, the local gin or Emperidor, a brandy of questionable, though palatable origins. These two drinks are enjoyed neat, in a shot glass passed around the table and it’s very rarely just one bottle, especially with new foreign friends in attendance. Inom tayo or let’s drink.
There are numerous Filipino phrases you will find incredibly useful, but that’s for part two of the guide and another post. Don’t learn the local dialects as they aren’t understood beyond the boundary of their area, stick to Tagalog, which is pretty much understood and spoken across the islands. It’s not an easy language to master as the structure doesn’t follow Western grammer laws, but a few simple phrases will help you no end and go a long way to enduring you to your hosts. Do make the effort.
The whole idea behind this series of posts will be to provide potential tourists with us much useless, fun filled information as possible on life here in the Philippines. Feel free to ask questions or disagree if you feel I’ve misrepresented anything. Everyday here is a blessing, with fantastic weather, beautiful scenery and amazing people. Before you flame me, keep in mind the articles are written from a fun filled perspective, but do contain serious and useful info for tourists.
The next installment will cover ear plugs, videoke and those promised little langauge snippets, as spoken by the locals.