I recently went on an incredible trip to the Philippines. It’s not a country which is well known to South Africans, so here are a few quick facts, some things to take into consideration and some advice from someone who’s been.
10 Quick Random Facts to Help You Understand the Country:
- The first non-Asian country to colonise the islands was Spain who ruled for 377 years until 1898
- From 1898 to 1946 the country was an American colony
- The most commonly spoken local language is Tagalog which is a mixture of European, Asian and Native American languages
- Of the 170 languages spoken, English is the most widely used of the European languages
- The currency is the Peso, R1, at the time of writing this is worth 3.70 Pesos
- There are over 7000 islands in the country
- The major religion is Roman Catholicism, which accounts for 80% of the population
- It is home to an island in a lake in an island in a lake in an island
- Christmas celebrations can, in some parts of the Philippines, start in September and end in January
- The plug sockets accept US-format plugs (5-15, type B)
If you’ve heard anything about the Philippines, it’s been about the weather. It’s usually not good news either. The Philippines is generally a warm, wet country with the average maximums around 26-27°C, though most of the beach destinations hover around the 28-30°C mark year-round. It gets a staggering average of 19 typhoons annually, though these can be avoided by visiting islands in the South West which rarely get the full-brunt of these storms. These islands include: Palawan, Culion and Busuanga (Coron).
The country has 3 seasons: Tag-Init, a hot, dry season from March to May; Tag-Ulan, the rainy season from June to November; and Tag-Lamig, the cool and dry season from December to February. By cool, though, they usually mean temperatures between 26°C and 28°C, so definitely not cool by South African standards! Travelling between December and April is usually when you’ll get the least rain.
Which Islands Should You Choose?
Boracay is the most famous, it’s small, but it’s a bit more like Phuket than the rest of the islands in the country; it’s where you’ll find the best night life and party atmosphere. Bohol is a great one for seeing unusual places like the Chocolate Hills and doing unusual things like swimming with whalesharks. The largest island, Luzon is where you can visit the incredible and ancient rice terraces of Banaue. It’s also where you’ll find Manila, the country’s massive capital and for the geography nerds, it’s where you can see the island in a lake in an island in a lake in an island (the Taal Lake & Volcano at Tagaytay, 1 hour from Manila).
But the best place for me personally is Palawan. The island is really long and the northern half is where most things worth seeing are. El Nido is the centre of all the activity in the North – hotels, backpackers, dive centres, day trips and so on, it’s busy enough, but really still a sleepy village at heart. If even that is too much for you, try Port Barton which is beautiful and the only visitors tend to be a few sea turtles. Also worth mentioning is the island of Coron, accessible from Busuanga, it’s jaw-droppingly beautiful with incredible cliffs and lagoons, though there’s not as much to see as in El Nido.
As mentioned above, there is a rich mix of people and histories in the country, that being said it’s probably one of the least ‘Asian’ of the surrounding countries, thanks to over 400 years of Western colonisation. The people are deeply religious (mostly Catholic), though extremely tolerant in comparison to many adherents of the religious movements found in the rest of the world. The people are generally hard working, relaxed and friendly, perhaps not as smiley as the Thais but definitely more friendly than here in SA. Their culture embodies what is known as “bahala na“, a general sense of whatever will be will be. Obviously this means there’s a general sense of contentment with life.
There is a bad side to the people though, but this is not a general thing. Tourists must be warned against visiting the islands in the far South East though, this is a staunchly and often militantly Islamic area. It is generally not safe for non-locals and is best avoided. These islands are Mindanao and the Sulu Islands like Basilan, Jolo and Tawi-Tawi.
There are no specific health requirements for visiting the Philippines; this means a yellow fever certificate is not needed for travellers returning from a trip here. Malaria can be found in certain more tropical regions though most people survive just fine without prophylaxis; a good bug spray should take care of this just fine.
The water is generally not drinkable from taps though, especially in rural areas. Drink bottled water wherever possible. I brought a whole bunch of stomach meds with me which came in very handy: probiotics, anti-cramp meds, anti-diarrhoea and pain killers. A box of plasters won’t go awry either. Bring sunscreen, though, like Thailand, the sun is unlikely to burn you like the nuclear furnace we have here in our local skies does!
Don’t bother packing too much in the way of warm clothes. We went in the cold season and I wore boardshorts and vests the entire time. I could probably have survived the entire trip on two pairs of swim shorts an a few vests, in retrospect.
Closed shoes, other than hiking shoes probably aren’t necessary, everyone wears flip-flops and you can pick up a pair there for less than R40 easily if need be. I brought aqua booties which were a great help on sharp coral reefs and rocks, I’d definitely recommend buying some in SA, though they cost about the same from the dive shops in the Philippines.
Food is cheap in the Philippines though prices do go up the further away from civilisation you go. In places like El Nido you can expect to spend around R60 for a plate of food at a restaurant. Further South around Puerto Princesa where there’s a proper port and airport, you’ll spend around R40 for the same thing. What’s expensive is coffee (around R20 a cup) and cocktails which can be closer to R30-R40 a pop. Opt for juice, beer or a fresh coconut and you’ll be spending a lot less.
Diving is relatively affordable too, a 1 day, 3 dive open water ticket including equipment, dive-master and lunch costs around R800. A discover scuba course is closer to R1000. Snorkel equipment rents for around R40 a day. Doing your open water PADI dive course will cost around R5400 – a similar price to here in SA.
Decent accommodation in urban areas can be cheap, from around R200 per person sharing per night. Hotel and resort-style accommodation further afield can see prices going up a little, particularly in places like El Nido, but if you’re after luxury resorts with rim-flow swimming pools etc, you can easily expect to pay around R2000 per person sharing per night.
Got any questions about visiting the Philippines? Ask in comments below! Got any tips of your own? Add them in comments below!