Philippines

Philippines

image: banana hatAs the second largest archipelago in the world, the 7100 islands of the Philippines are little visited by travellers and continue to be one of South East Asia’s best kept secrets. The country is a curious mix of Asian, Spanish and American cultural influences that range from Iberian colonial architecture to ancient tribal traditions to an obsession with American rock n’ roll.

Iconised as the home of Imelda Marco‘s shoe collection and one of the most corrupt dictator regimes in the world, the country has frequently been in the news regarding its changing political climate, economic woes and frequent natural disasters. Though the Philippines is extremely westernised it still offers a glimpse into the fascinating world of its 60 ethnic minorities when you leave the traffic clogged streets of Metro Manila.

Laze away on a blinding white sand beach in Boracay or scuba dive untouched reefs off ofPalawan, a long sliver of land that is home to the countries birds nest soup collectors in El Nido. Climb the Mayon volcano, named the world’s most perfectly shaped cone, or surf some of the best waves in the world on the isolated islands of the East Coast.

As the only Catholic country in Asia, Christian religious holidays can be an interesting time to visit as fiestas bring the country to a standstill and firecrackers, dancing and drinking remind one of the country’s Spanish past.

Filipinos love to lip sync to catchy eighties tunes that time forgot, so grab a karaoke microphone, brush up on your knowledge of ‘We Are the World’ lyrics, head to the Philippines and prepare to be impressed with the world’s friendliest and most talented singers.

Cash

The monetary unit of the country is the Phillipine Peso. During the Asian Economic crisis of 1997 the currency fluctuated wildly and has since stabilised at a much lower value to major western currencies. The economy in recent years has been named the fastest growing in the region, though the instability of it’s political scene and recent bombings, and kidnappings of tourists in the south has dampened this growth.

The Philippines is not the cheapest destinations in South East Asia, and the costs per day of budget travel (including food and accommodation, but excluding transport) should be a bit less than $25 per person. Budget hotels in cities go for around $10 per night, with midrange hotels up to $50, and all the way up at the top are the 5 star chains at over $120 per night. Meals in local restaurants can be as cheap as $2 per person, excluding alcohol.

Bargaining is accepted and tipping is appreciated as most workers receive pretty dismal monthly salaries; rounding up taxi fares and tipping in local restaurants is advisable, especially for good service.

You will find cash machines outside of Manila, and you can get cash advances on major credit cards from them. You can also bring US dollars cash or travellers checks; US dollar bills with large denominations will get a higher exchange rate than 5’s and 10’s and make sure they are not damaged or worn out. Travellers Checks attract commission rates so it’s advisable to bring US dollars especially in far flung areas.

1 US Dollar = c.50 Philippine pesos
1 British Pound = c.80 Philippine pesos
1 Euro = c.55 Philippine pesos

For up to date currency information, check the Currency Converter.

People

The Philippines population hovers just under the 80 million mark, and has one of the fastest growth rates in the world. The filipinos are a mixture of Malay and Chinese ethnicity, with a bit of Spanish and European origin thrown in from colonial times.

About 10 percent of the population are tribal peoples scattered across the outlying areas of the northern and southern islands. There are 60 of these groups that have for the most part retained their language and cultural heritage. At least one tribe on Palawan, the Tau’t Batu, went undiscovered until the late 20th century.

About 90 percent of the country is Christian, a legacy of the colonial missionaries 500 years ago. It is one of the most devout catholic countries and the Pope has visited more than once.
Muslims make up the largest of the minority ethnic groups and are concentrated mainly onMindanao Island. Numerous bomb attacks have occurred here and it may be a wise idea to give the whole southern area a miss due to the increasing violence.

Travel

With so many islands, travelling around the Philippines invariably involves long ferry trips. With a huge number of boats plying the inter-island routes, not all of which are safe, it pays to be careful when taking these ferries. Overnight services are particularly dangerous, and sinkings are extremely common, often involving many casualties.

Buses operate on practically all islands and are a colourful way to get to the sights, particularly on Luzon, the largest and most populated island. Jeepneys, converted US Army jeeps, are cheap and luridly decorated with poems, photos and lights. Surface transport is quite safe compared with other South East Asian countries, though pick pocketing can sometimes be a problem.

Domestic flights are cheap and shave off long overland travel times. Philippine Airlines andAir Philippines cover much of the countries main towns and cities. Sample fares to a popular destination like Cebu is around $121 US dollars return. If you are travelling to a few islands, and your time is short, buy an airpass to save money (instead of buying individual tickets)

Food

Chinese, Spanish and Malay recipes form the base of Filipino dishes. Stewed meats are commonly served with rice, combined with boiled vegetables and seafood. Soups are also popular and meats like beef and liver are common ingredients. BBQ’d pig (Lechon) is popular for weddings and parties and is roasted on large spits; it can be expensive with a whole animal going for around $200 US dollars.

Lots of snack foods can be found at push carts and street stalls like Baloo, the fertilized duck eggs that are meant to improve virility; and Halo-Halo, a popular desert that combines crushed ice with chopped fruit and is topped with sweetened condensed milk.

Language

The main language of the Philippines is Tagalog, though English is so widely spoken here that it serves as a second language (and the official language for law and legal matters). Travellers will never have a hard time communicating. Tribal languages are spoken all over the remote areas of the country and a large number of dialects exist. When visiting these places it pays to pick up some Tagalog in case English isn’t understood.

Climate

Heat and humidity dominate the country’s weather although it is slightly drier between December and June. The Philippines lie in the monsoon zone, and experiences it’s rainy season between July and December. This is also typhoon season, and the island archipelago frequently is pounded by large storms at this time, that leave flooding. Extensive damage and destruction to the infrastructure; it pays to listen to the weather reports, as sea and land transport can be snarled up for days. The best weather is after the rains have passed, and expect daytime highs in the low 30’s C. By May the heat is oppressive, especially in Manila where temperatures can climb to the low 40’s C.

Dress

The Philippines is mainly a Catholic country and its wise to dress moderately conservative, particularly in the rural areas. It is a hot country so light, cotton clothing is recommended. Bring rain gear if you venture here in the rainy period, and some shoes that dry out easily.
The far south is primarily Muslim, and dressing conservatively is a must while travelling here; long sleeved shirts and trousers for men while women shouldn’t wear shorts or tank tops, especially when visiting the beach.

Health

The Philippines requires some vigilance when it comes to health; Malaria, Hepatitis, and Cholera are risks; take care with ice, fresh fruits (always peel them) and cooked food should be served very hot. Drink lots of bottled water to avoid dehydration and avoid tap water or ice.
Meeting with a tropical medicine doctor before departure is essential to discuss malaria medications and injections, should they be required.

Visas

For less than 21 days, most western nationalities require no visa at all, and are granted one upon arrival at either Manila or Cebu, the main international arrivals points. For longer stays travellers can apply for a visa from a Philippine embassy or consulate. A three month visas costs $35 and even longer visas (for six months to one year) can be applied approved, though they limit each visit to just under 2 months.

By Dave Lowe

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