Ben’s Introductory Guide to The Philippines
The Philippines was the first country that I traveled around solo and it remains one of my favorites. This is mainly due to the vast array of islands, stunning beaches and tropical waters.
It seems that The Philippines is slightly overlooked as a viable travel destination by many. Which means that the amount of western tourists you run into will be considerably lower than most other countries in South East Asia.
To be totally honest Manila is a stressful city and is extremely difficult to navigate with its lack of public transport connections. So, unless you are prepared to pay a small fortune to get multiple taxis across the city, you will want to avoid Manila as much as possible. This is harder said than done as all transport links seem to start and end here.
The one somewhat interesting tourist attraction I found in Manila was Intramuros. This is the oldest part of the city and you are able to look around some historical buildings from the Spanish Inquisition in the Philippines. I also went to see Batman Vs Superman at the cinema.
I really enjoyed Palawan. It is home to the best beaches I have visited so far in SE Asia. I went to both El Nido and Coron. The two main tourist destinations in Palawan. I preferred the latter, however you should try and visit both if your schedule permits it.
The main attraction for both of these destinations are the island hoping day trips. There are many different island tours available to choose from which start at about £15 (1000 PHP, 20 USD) in El Nido and £10 (700PHP, 15 USD) in Coron. A two-day tour is also available where you are given the opportunity to camp overnight on a deserted island with an unlimited supply of rum. It reminded me of Pirates of the Caribbean.
Out of everywhere I have visited so far on my travels, the Caramoan islands were by far the most rural and the least influenced by tourism. Sure, there were a few Filipino tourists out and about but I didn’t see one other western person throughout the two days I was there.
Would I recommend the Caramoan Islands to others? I’m not so sure. It was very challenging to get to due to it being in such remote location and there wasn’t a whole lot to do apart from explore the islands by boat. However, if you are looking for a unique, non-touristic, tropical experience. This could be the adventure for you.
Legazpi is a city in the south of Luzon best known for the huge Mount Mayon volcano. I only stayed in Legazpi for one night to see the volcano.
If you wish to get a good view of the Volcano, head down to the Cagsawa Ruins. Here you can walk through the remains of an old church where many lost their lives during a volcanic eruption in 1814. Make sure you also check the weather forecast for the day you plan on visiting. Clouds = less visibility.
Donsol is a small town roughly two hours from Legazpi. I would recommend this place to everyone. Not only did the town itself have a really relaxed vibe but it is also famous for its Whale Shark diving which is truly a once in a life time experience.
For just over the £10 mark (700 PHP, 15 USD) you were taken out on a boat for the entire morning and given the opportunity to swim alongside as many Whale Sharks as possible which are unbelievably common in the waters off the coast of Donsol. You’re near enough guaranteed to at least see a Whale Shark but most likely you will find yourself swimming with multiple Whale Sharks for an extended period of time. This is a must do for anyone who can swim!
The first point to keep in mind when it comes to transport in The Philippines is that this country is made up of many different islands and is extremely spread out. What this means is that if you want to visit multiple destinations you need to be prepared to either take flights from destination to destination (which will dramatically eat into your budget) OR alternatively be willing to brace the open sea and make boat travel a part of your trip. Here are your transport options:
You know what to expect with this one. Flying is by far the most convenient way of getting to the main destinations in The Philippines but also the most expensive.
You only have two arrival choices if you are flying in from an international airport outside The Philippines. The choices are Manila or Cebu. These are the two biggest cities in The Philippines and contain the only two airports which have international arrivals. Unfortunately, this is not great news for those wanting to visit The Philippines for its tropical scenery as you are pretty much guaranteed to end up in one of these concrete cities first. I didn’t visit Cebu but in my three weeks in The Philippines I did end up in Manila a grand total three times!
Once you have arrived in one of these two cities you can transfer to a domestic flight which will get you closer to your actual destination. I would strongly recommend trying to schedule your domestic flight time in a way that gets you out of the cities as soon as possible.
If you are travelling around The Philippines extensively then it’s more than likely that you will have to travel by boat at some point or another.
I had to take three long distance boats while I was there with each differing in quality. The bigger the boat the more comfortable your experience is likely to be. For a long journey the overnight ferry is your best option, a standard bed cost me around £20 (1300 PHP, 28 USD). You will by no means be sleeping in luxury but it’s comfortable enough, the journey passes quickly and a meal will usually be included in the price.
If you are going on a shorter journey (2-10 hours) and happen to be taking a smaller boat, then be prepared for a rocky trip! I have never felt as sea sick as I did on a 7-hour journey from El Nido to Coron in Palawan. I literally had to lie on my back and close my eyes for the entire journey in order to stop myself throwing up. It wasn’t fun. If you know that you suffer with motion sickness, I would highly recommend investing in some tablets before taking a trip of this length on a smaller boat.
I actually had mostly good experiences with the buses in the Philippines which I was forced to take multiple times when I needed to travel a longer distance.
However, please be aware that for longer journeys these buses tend to operate throughout the night. It became clear to me quickly that travelling by night bus is not the safest option due to the combination of reckless driving and lack of visibility. This does not just apply to The Philippines but many of the poorer countries I have visited thus far.
The average price for a 10-hour, one way, night bus ticket was around £7 (700PHP, 10 USD)
Small vans were usually the go to vehicle for travelling shorter distances on land (1 to 5 hours). These vans hold around 6-10 people and are affordable. The main issue I had with these vehicles was the severe lack of leg room, especially for someone taller like me.
Tricycles pretty much act as taxis (they are the equivalent of the Tuk Tuk found in many other SE Asian countries). You will find yourself using these guys a lot when you need to get around locally. They are very convenient and inexpensive. You will find tricycle drivers everywhere you go.
Keep in mind that most of these drivers will try and rip you off if they get the chance. You will always need to be bartering the price down as much as possible. NEVER take the first price you are offered and ALWAYS agree on a price with the driver before you get into the Tricycle.
It’s difficult to give you the exact price you should be paying here because it really depends on where you are and how far you need to go. I would advise asking someone in your accommodation for the rough price of a Tricycle when arriving at a new destination.
Food & Drink
Before arriving in The Philippines I read time and time again how bad the food is. In truth it’s not bad but it’s not great either. I would describe it as simple. Which isn’t exactly the worst thing in the world. Just don’t arrive with your expectations too high. If you’re a fan of seafood, then that would be the way to go. I had the opportunity to try Lobster for the first time at a very reasonable price. There is also plenty of western food available for those who seek it out.
Alcohol? Rum. 70 pence (40PHP, $1) per bottle. Need I say more?
– Beautiful coastal areas and islands.
– Inexpensive transport and activities.
– Less tourism than rival SE Asian countries.
– Difficult to travel widely on a low budget (too spread out).
– Simple food.