The Philippines are one of South East Asia’s most dazzling locations, a vast archipelago sprinkled across the pacific ocean like a long string of glistening jewels and precious gems. It may not be on the traditional banana panckake route but that doesn’t mean the Philippines aren’t popular with independent travellers, and it is crystal clear why this region of stunning islands has been a backpacker favourite for decades. Lazy days of island hopping fun and exceptional diving, cheap daily living and beach huts and backpacker hostels galore as well as a food scene that may not be as michelin star fancy or world renowned as its neighbours, but is mindblowingly unique and familiar at the same time.
Yet there is far more to the Philippines than beautiful coastline, lush tropical jungles and white sand beaches paradise itself would be jealous of, scratch beneath the surface and you will discover ancient villages and traditional ways of life in between the jungle covered volcanoes and rice paddies, crumbling Spanish churches, a surprisingly Latin American feel and a rich, diverse culture that makes this one of the most exuberant and unique parts of South East Asia.
Culture And Etiquette.
The Philippines are one of the worlds largest Catholic nations and has the largest Christian population in Asia thanks to centuries of Spanish rule and later a heavy American influence. This Spanish colonialism goes far beyond religion however, and infuses much of the countries culture on everything from food and language to architecture. There are however a large mixture of other religions and cultures as well, creating a melting pot in the larger cities.
Because of this heavy Spanish and American influence, it is an extremely familiar country for Western backpackers to travel through and many travellers will not come across much in the way of culture shock or language barriers..
The very Asian concept of ‘saving face’ is still very evident in the Philippines, although it is generally known as the confusing umbrella term of hiya. A sense of polite propriety is still extremely important in Filipino society.
What You Need To Know.
The citizens of most countries including the UK, the US, Australia, New Zealand and Europe are allowed into the Philippines for up to 30 days without a visa. You can get a tourist visa from the Philippine Embassy before you travel which will allow a visit of up to 59 days and is highly recommended.
If you want to stay longer than this then you can easily apply to extend your stay at the offices of the Bureau of Immigration. Just go, supply your documents, pay the fee and get your visa, it’s that easy. There are a variety of visas available but the majority of travellers will simply need the Extension Of Authorised Stay Beyond 59 Days. It costs around 500 PHP, or around £7 to £8 GBP per month for every month you want to stay extra.
You can of course always do a visa run, but authorities are strongly cracking down on this for those who are obvious with it and when you can do it legitimately so easily and cheaply why would you need to.
All travellers are strongly recommended to be up to date on their routine vaccinations including MMR, diptheria – pertusis – tetanus and varicella (chicken pox).
Typhoid and a Tetanus booster (if you need one) are also strongly recommended.
Hepatitis A and B, Japanese encephalitis, Rabies and yellow fever are recommended for at risk groups. Discuss this with your physician, specialist nurse or travel clinic to see which vaccinations are suitable for you.
Proof of a Yellow Fever Vaccination will be required if you are travelling from a country where the disease is present.
The majority of the Philippines is low to no risk of malaria and so antimalarials are not advised for the majority of travellers. There are pockets of the Philippines where there is a slightly raised risk such as Palawan and the west coast past Samboanga, but antimalarials won’t necessarily be advised unless travellers are in an at risk group. You will need to talk through your plans with a qualified professional.
Anti mosquito measures are advised at all times due to other mosquito borne diseases such as dengue and zika.
Hospitals and clinics are of a good standard in the major towns and cities, but are harder to find in more off the beaten track areas. If you do plan to spend more time in rural areas then plan accordingly if you may need medical attention.
Crime and Safety.
Despite its reputation the Philippines is actually quite safe with some reasonable common sense precautions. As always just be mindful of your belongings and surroundings, don’t accept drinks off strangers and generally stick to the common sense precautions you would do at home and you will be absolutely fine. It is wise to keep up to date with the current political situation and FCO advice so you can exercise a bit of judgment when it comes to deciding where to go.
Costs and money.
The unit of currency in the Phillipines in the peso, which has 100 centavos in it. ATMs are common in all but the remotest areas of the country and it is easy to access your money via a debit card. Credit cards are also widely accepted but it is wiser to keep these for emergencies.
Parts of the Philippines are more expensive than other parts of South East Asia such as Thailand or Indonesia, especially in the very heavily touristy areas, but are still very cheap by western standards. A budget traveller can easily get by on £15 a day sleeping in hostels and sticking to inexpensive street food, £20 – £30 a day can get you a good level of comfort with private rooms, occasional nice restaurant meals and plenty of activities, but luxury travellers can easily spend hundreds of pounds a day too. At the higher end, hotels are often quoted in USD rather than peso’s.
When to go.
Like much of South East Asia, the Philippines has a hot, humid tropical climate. It also has a wet season from roughly May to October and a dry season from roughly November to April. Either are an excellent time to visit, with the wet season having advantages the dry season doesn’t and vice versa.
Places To See.
Busay is a very small province near Cebu City but is the perfect place to come and relax and visit the Busay Waterfalls! These stunning tiered waterfalls have small lagoons at each tier that are perfect for swimming in and escaping the tropical heat, and are very popular with locals, especially on the weekend.
You know all those postcards with pictures of white sand and perfect paradisiacal beaches? Well here it is! There are numerous beaches and coves on Boracay but the one everyone talks about and the most famous is the aptly named White Beach, the long stretch of pristine white sand and crystal clear turqoise waters. Boracay is heavily touristy, but for good reason.
This hidden gem is well worth the trip to get here. It is a ruggedly stunning coastline filled with vibrant mountain lakes, hidden coves and completely deserted beaches that can be found with just a little exploration.
The Chocolate Hills.
The chocoloate hills of Bohol are an iconic sight in the Philippines, thousands of small hills spread out over what would otherwise be a vast, flat plain are normally covered with lush, green grass. As the dry season goes on, the grass dries out and is burned by the sun, turning it from green to brown and making it look like each hill is covered in chocolate, hence the name.
Don’t let this city’s reputation put you off, if you can deal with the traffic chaos it is a bustling, thriving, heaving modern metropolis, with modern glass and chrome malls and skyscrapers looming over poorer remnants of its past. Manilla’s soul oozes through every nook and cranny, and you can almost feel the heartbeat of the city in every modern speakeasy bar and up and coming restaurants and gallery, reminding you of its deep and rich history and culture. Don’t just use the city as a convenient jumping off point, take the time and explore it too.
Peurto Princesa Subterranean River National Park.
Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park may be a bit of a mouthful but this protected National Park in the Saint Paul Mountain Range on the western coast of Palawan is well worth a visit! This modern Wonder of the Natural World has over 8 km of complex cave formations and tunnels that have been carved out of the natural limestone over centuries by the river that runs through it, and exploring the cathedral like caverns, tight tunnels and bat caves by paddle boat or canoe is a once in a lifetime experience.
Baneau’s stairways to heaven, the rice terraces hewn out of the volcanic landscape over 2000 years ago by the Ifugao people and still used today, are one of the great iconic sites of the Philippines and a UNESCO World Heritage natural treasure. There is basic accomodation in nearby Batad for those who want to hike the trails here.
A provincial city known for its rich food and culture, Legazpi is a perfect jumping off point for the burgeoning adventure travel industry that is springing up around the infamous Mount Mayon, a very active volcano that is both a blessing and a curse for those who live around it.
Things To Do.
Snorkelling And Diving.
Snorkelling and diving really need no explanation do they? They are one of the major reasons for visiting many of the islands in the Philippines and for good reason, the water here is crystal clear and warm, and the surroundings simply magical.
Try The Local Cuisine.
Cheese! On Ice Cream? Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it! Filipino cuisine may not be the most famous in the region but it is the most unique, and absolutely delicious too! You haven’t been to the Philipinnes until you have tried the infamous Balut or some insane Halo Halo!
Treat Yourself To Some Luxury.
The Philippines has a wide array of luxury spas where you can treat yourself to some real lavish, extravagant indulgence at a very reasonable rate compared to Western prices. Go and get yourself a massage or a foot rub, or a lot of them, you can afford it here!
Do A Bit Of Volcano Trekking.
The stunning scenery of the volcanic Mount Mayon or Mount Pinatubo among others makes for a beautiful hike. You will have to be fit as they are challenging treks, but are well worth the climb.
Discover local tribal cultures.
Before the Spanish the Philippines were inhabited by a wide variety of tribes, many of whom had traditions of animism, mummification and other local beliefs, some of which can still be fouund today in the highlands of the Cordillera. The seperation between Highland and Lowland Fillipinos by the Spanish was a result of the refusal of many tribes to be assimilated for over 3 Centuries, a respectable feat in and of itself, and it makes for a fascinating cultural experience to explore what the Phillipines used to be like, and in some very small parts still is, before that.
Get Your Adventure On!
If volcano trekking isn’t enough for you, head to Albay which is fast becoming the adventure tourism capital of the Philippines. You can hire an ATV to take you to the lava wall of Mount Mayon, indulge in some watersports and enjoy a spot of ziplining too.