With the winning combination of a tropical climate and low living costs, it’s no surprise that South East Asia has become a backpacker’s paradise. While regional hotspots such as Thailand and Vietnam have already firmly embraced the influx of foreign travellers, many other countries in the region are still getting to grips with both the impact of tourism and their own rapid economic development.
The Philippines sits firmly within the latter camp. A vast archipelago of over 7,000 islands with almost as many different cultures and languages, you could easily spend months here and still feel like you’d only scratched the surface. Unfortunately we didn’t have months – we had just over two weeks.
Arriving in Manila, we discovered less of a city and more of a sprawling conurbation with very little overall structure. A few scattered pockets of high-rise towers claw their way out from a mess of shanty towns and flea markets that stretch from horizon to horizon. Major roads are almost permanently snarled with stationary traffic, and public transport is haphazard at best with each bus company operating its own terminal in a different part of the city. There are no lane markings, and traffic rules are paid little attention – as one taxi driver told us, “no seatbelt, no problem”!
While the newly built areas are pristine, most of Manila is incredibly dirty. It’s not unusual to see someone burning litter in the street, and the river that loops through the city is buried beneath a mass of floating debris. Combined with traffic fumes and the intense heat, this makes exploring the city an experience that’s best kept brief.
Due to the country’s long history of colonial occupation (first the Spanish and later the Americans) there are a few things about the Philippines which do ring familiar. English is widely spoken and actually shares official status with Filipino – a local language based on Tagalog which also borrows many phrases from English and Spanish. In contrast to most other nations in the region, the Filipinos are overwhelmingly Christian, with Catholics making up more than 80% of the population. They’re not private about it either – religious text and imagery is emblazoned on everything from public buildings to public transport.
We happened to visit the Philippines during election time, and the Filipinos take their politics seriously. Every scrap of space was daubed with posters advertising Councillor This and Senator That. This wasn’t just true of the capital – no matter how far from civilisation we travelled, the posters arrived one step ahead of us.
We were quite relieved when we finally escaped Manila, flying south to Puerto Princesa – the capital of the Palawan island chain where our journey would begin in earnest. In contrast to Manila, Puerto feels like an island city with tidy streets and plenty of greenery. It’s also the site of Palawan’s only shopping mall – a gargantuan air-conditioned structure fresh out of the American dream. The Filipinos love their malls, but against both the widespread poverty of Manila and the tropical beauty of Palawan I couldn’t help but feel they seemed a little out of place.
Transportation in the Philippines comes in a few flavours. The islands are connected by regular internal flights (which are reasonably good but never leave on time) as well as ferries (which are cheaper but notoriously unsafe). While taxis do exist in the larger cities, the Filipinos’ main form of point-to-point transport is the tricycle. Essentially just a motorbike and side-car with a decorated outer shell, tricycles are everywhere and will constantly hail anyone who looks even vaguely like a tourist. Fares tend to be very cheap, and the locals certainly make the most of them – whole families, sometimes as many as five or six, manage to squeeze on to a single bike. If tricycles appeal to you, then you’ll love it’s larger cousin – the jeepney. Originally converted from surplus US army jeeps left over following WWII, these heavily customised trucks are used in a similar way to buses, travelling on pre-set routes at (very roughly) pre-set times. Again, the Filipinos have no problems with transport capacity – it’s not unusual to see a jeepney with 20 passengers inside, another 10 on the roof with the luggage, and a few more hanging off the back for good measure! Another oddity of Filipino transport is their tendency to stop for just about anyone who wants to get on board. Even the long haul ‘non-stop’ coaches have fold down seats in the aisle to accommodate anybody who hitches a lift en-route.
Jeepneys rarely service routes that take more than a couple of hours, so we’d be making our five hour journey to Port Barton by minibus. What was advertised on one local website as ‘a large and well-organised bus terminal’ turned out to be a collection of huts and sheds with various suppliers competing over the same destinations. Thankfully our tricycle driver was able to point us in the right direction, and after a short wait we were on the road again.
Port Barton is a quiet fishing village nestled into Palawan’s northern coast. A handful of backpacker lodges and dive schools look out onto its pristine beach, but tourism is less intense here than elsewhere on the island. We’d arranged to stay with a local woman called Jelma through philippineshomestay.com, which was absolutely brilliant – it took a little while to hear back from them, but I really can’t recommend the experience enough. Although she spoke very little English, Jelma made us feel immediately welcome while her son Ramel (a fisherman who runs boat tours during the high season) took us out snorkelling on the nearby reefs.
Jelma’s house isn’t much more than a bamboo shack, held together with whatever materials were on hand at the time. Despite that, it felt incredibly cosy and it was clear that someone had put a level of care and thought into its construction that’s often missing here in the land of cheap builds and housing estates. The facilities were basic, however what we weren’t prepared for was the livestock – all of the villagers kept pigs, goats, and chickens (among other things), many of which roamed freely between the huts. Being woken at the first hint of sunlight by a chorus of roosters simply became part of the experience. Not that this is unusual in the Philippines – the whole country seems to rest and rise in tune with the daylight, going to bed between 8 and 9 PM and getting up some time between 4 and 5.
Unsurprisingly for an island country in Asia, fresh fish and rice make up a large part of the Filipino diet. Pork and Chicken are also common, however in the Philippines nothing is wasted – order a chicken curry, and you’d best be prepared for whichever bit of the chicken they give you! Foreign restaurants are common in cities and tourist hotspots, with Italian food being particularly common. Prices are generally cheap, especially if you eat where the locals do. At one eatery in Port Barton we were able to get two substantial meals with drinks (including branded fare like Coke and Sprite) for 100 pesos (less than £2) between us. However, be prepared for a long wait and don’t expect meals to come together, even in relatively nice restaurants. Meals cooked to order generally turn up whenever they decide to make them, and there sometimes appears to be no logic to it – a large main might arrive quickly, while a small side order that only takes a few minutes to prepare could appear half an hour later. After a while, this concept of ‘Filipino Time’ is just something that you learn to accept.
From Port Barton we headed North East to El Nido, gateway to the Bacuit Archipelago and the first real tourist destination on our trip. We chose to stay in Corong Corong, just south of the town itself, which turned out to be a fantastic decision – El Nido proper is bustling with activity but with very little space to expand, everything could easily feel a little claustrophobic. Corong Corong on the other hand offered a beautiful stretch of almost empty beach with an incredible view of the archipelago itself.
The Bacuit Archipelago looks more like something out of a CGI fantasy movie than a place that actually exists. Surreal limestone islands tower above the bay, each of them topped with thick vegetation that looks like shrubbery… until you spot a palm tree and realise just how high those cliffs are! Many of the islands harbour idyllic lagoons, some of them only accessible through tiny holes in the rock, ripe for exploration with a snorkel or a kayak. A variety of standard boat tours are available from almost every hotel or shop, so don’t expect too much peace and quiet – the most popular spots see an almost constant stream of visitors.
One of our biggest surprises was learning that despite being an island nation, many Filipinos cannot swim. Even when they do, for many it’s simply a case of sticking your head in the water and kicking as hard as you can, which tends to produce more chaos than it does propulsion. Similarly, the Filipino relationship with sunshine is very different to what we’re used to in the West. Light skin is considered attractive in much the same way that we treat a tan, and most Filipino women take to the water in long-sleeved rash vests to avoid getting too much sun. Adverts for skin-whitening creams are common on TV, and most Filipino celebrities appear uncannily pale.
With our island-hopping adventures complete, we headed to the Cordillera mountains in North Luzon for a welcome change of pace. Following a night in Baguio (a university city with a cooler climate and fresher face than the capital) we arrived in Sagada, a backpacker hotspot high in the mountains. This region was never conquered by the Spanish, and while Christianity eventually took hold in the area many tribal practices continue. Most famous of these are the ‘hanging coffins’, where tribal elders are laid to rest not under the ground but instead high on the cliff side. Our guide David estimated thousands of these coffins exist within the surrounding area, although very few are accessible to the public. These traditional practices are offset bizarrely by an obsession with American country music, which seems to be everywhere in the mountains for reasons I don’t fully understand.
Buried deep within almost European-looking pine forests, the landscape of Sagada couldn’t be a starker contrast to the islands of Palawan, althought the lush river valley below the village is no less stunning. The village is flush with backpacker lodges and guest houses along with a few fantastic eateries, and despite the significant number of foreign travellers it never felt overly touristy. It’s easy to see why Sagada is popular – aside from the chilled out atmosphere and beautiful landscape, the surrounding peaks and an extensive cave system leave plenty of adventure for those who’d seek it. The climate in the mountains was warm, but far less intense than we’d encountered elsewhere. Despite us visiting near the end of the dry season, the rains had come early to Sagada – for a few hours each afternoon the main road became a river, before the deluge disappeared as quickly as it had arrived.
Following Sagada we moved on to Banaue, heart of the Cordilleras’ world renowned rice terraces. Calved into the mountainside 2,000 years ago by the local tribes, often by hand, it’s no surprise that many of the surrounding towns are World Heritage listed. These narrow green strips, connected by an extensive irrigation system, and a magnificent spectacle as well as providing food for the local people. Tourists flood the town (many of them Filipinos) and you won’t make it more than a few metres before someone offers you a trip to Batad, most famous of the nearby World Heritage Sites and the location of some incredible terraces if the photographs are to be believed. We were fortunate enough to visit during the Imbayah festival, an annual celebration of the rice harvest, which included native dancing and tricycles transformed into parade floats by industrious locals.
We chose to explore Banaue’s terraces on foot, following a route that our guidebook recommended (at this point we were running dangerously low on cash, with no ATM in 50 miles). This proved a little more challenging than expected, at one point leading us along a narrow irrigation canal with the mountain on one side and nothing but a plunging drop on the other. We inevitably got lost, but with a little patience and the help of a few friendly locals we eventually made it back to the town. On the up side, we certainly got a good view of the terraces!
With our time in Banaue at an end, all that remained was to return to Manila. That, it turned out, would be a challenge in itself. Rural roads in the Philippines become quite basic, frequently alternating between sections of relatively new tarmac and undeveloped dirt track. Even some of the major arteries are nothing more than a single lane each way, and when that lane becomes blocked (for example, by roadworks), there’s often no alternative route. Thus we found our overnight coach back to Manila, already expected to take nine hours and scheduled to arrive at 4 AM before a lunch time flight, stationary in the small hours of the morning and still many hours drive from the city.
At home, this wouldn’t be a problem – traffic signals would move vehicles slowly but surely past the obstruction, and we’d be back on our way. Not so in the Philippines. After a few hours with little movement in either direction, truckers began switching off their engines and going to sleep, adding to the problem. Eventually our bus driver (along with a few other brave souls) simply pulled into the oncoming lane and forced a path, past all the other coaches queueing patiently behind trucks that probably wouldn’t move again until sunrise. We made it back to Manila in time for our flight, but I’d be lying if I said I slept calmly that morning. Even at the end of our journey, Filipino Time still caught us unprepared.
Our time in the Philippines was an eye-opening experience, and we certainly came away with a deeper appreciation for this fascinating country and its people. The trip wasn’t without its frustrations, but in many ways it was our lack of time that was to blame. The Philippines is a country where it pays to live slow, worry less, and just enjoy the adventure.