When you think of South East Asia, what springs to mind?
For me, it’s a backpacker’s mecca – particularly for those on a budget. Food and accommodation is cheap, the weather’s good, beaches are seemingly everywhere and the traveller trail is so well established that it’s easy to move from place to place.
But with so many countries to choose from, where on earth do you go first?
Suggestion. How about the Philippines?!
I recently spent a week in the Philippines and fell hopelessly in love with the country.
At once wonderfully familiar and excitingly unknown, these islands were inspirational for me, and before I knew it I was desperate to start properly backpacking again. To spend my days sitting shoulder-to-sweaty-shoulder with locals on cramped buses, hair a mess, adrenaline pumping: it’s a life I’ve put to one side for a while, yet suddenly I wanted it back.
I hadn’t expected this to happen in just seven days, of course. But there’s something magical about the Philippines, and the more I saw and experienced, the more I realised just how little I’d known about the islands before arriving.
1: Everyone in the Philippines speaks English.
The language barrier can often be one of the most worrying aspects of travelling – but in the Philippines, English is one of the country’s official languages.
The islands of the Philippines were ruled by Spaniards for over three centuries (so there are still many remnants of that Hispanic influence) but the Spanish-American War in 1898 meant that the Philippines were handed over to the United States – who ruled for the next fifty years and got everyone speaking English.
It means that nowadays pretty much everyone in the Philippines either speaks or understands English to some degree, which means you don’t have to stress about being able to communicate – and street signage is much more familiar, too.
The Spanish influence also made me rather happy whenever I pinpointed a Spanish sounding word. Yep, learning Spanish has apparently turned me into a language geek.
2: The Filipino people are amazingly friendly.
One of the biggest things I noticed about the Philippines was how welcomed I felt wherever we went.
I’ve been to quite a few countries where locals either didn’t seem to care about me being there (which is perfectly understandable) or appeared downright annoyed that I was bothering them – but every Filipino I met was clearly trying their best to make me feel comfortable and happy.
When our group arrived at Palawan Island’s small airport, we were met by a grinning man in baggage claim with necklaces of shells for each of us who then led the way outside to a group of local dancers performing on the tarmac.
Equally huge grins were on their faces; the speakers above their heads blared the lyrics to a jolly song I eventually realised was specifically about the island itself; and when the dance was finished, it was their idea to pose for a big group picture.
As part of a cruise down the Loboc River on Bohol Island, we stopped off at a little wooden jetty to watch the most incredible ukelele and dance performance from a community of local women and children.
Quite apart from sporting that same joyous grin on all their faces, they were also very keen to get us involved in the musical extravaganza and we were all dragged into the middle to dance.
At first I was a little worried that the whole thing was set up purely for tourism, but apparently the kids only perform in the evenings, at weekends and at Sunday mass at church, and all the donations from tourists go straight back into the community for clothes, books and school supplies.
Later on during that same boat ride, we also ended up dancing the YMCA with the kitchen staff on board – who also taught us the moves for an equivalent Filipino song – and we were even joined by a man dressed up as a giant tarsier, who appeared from nowhere and featured carved coconuts for eyes.
I can honestly state that I’ve never had more impromptu musical moments in any other country.
3: Filipino food is seriously delicious.
Discovering food in the Philippines was a happy surprise. I’d expected it to be pretty similar to the meals I’d loved in Thailand – lots of curries, noodles and street snacks – but Filipino cuisine is actually very distinctive in terms of dishes and flavours.
Plus the actual process of eating in the Philippines is really rather fun.
At an organic farm on Palawan Island, we ate a meal in the traditional Filipino way: the food laid out in small piles on banana leaves spread across the whole table, and eaten with your bare hands instead of a knife and fork. The style is called a ‘boodle fight’ – a phrase handed down from the Philippine military – but it feels anything but aggressive.
Completely the opposite, in fact. While in that floating restaurant on the Loboc river, we were presented with an unbelievable array of fresh dishes; skewers filled with tilapia fish, squid, piles of black rice, roasted pork, whole crabs, corn on the cob, roast veggies and quite a few dishes I didn’t even know the names of.
Then there are the fruits. I’ve never been hugely keen on coconut water but it all depends on the freshness – and Filipino ones are pretty darn fresh.
And there are few countries where I’ve eaten sweeter mangos…
4: Moving around the islands is really easy.
Transport options in the Philippines are varied. Because there are around 7,000 islands, we spent the week flying from island to island and using Manila as a central hub – and while there were a few bouts of turbulence, it was all forgotten when the air stewardesses started a game of Bingo on board the flight.
With prizes. AMAZING.
Plus what other airlines do you know that hand out umbrellas because it’s raining as you board the plane?
On the islands themselves, jeepneys are the most common form of public transport.
Passengers all squash in together and there are no designated stops: the brightly coloured vehicles simply slow down enough to let you jump out.
And then there are the boats. If you’re a boat lover then you’ll easily be happy in the Philippines, as boat taxis are one of the cheapest (although somewhat unstable, weather-depending) options for getting between the islands and travelling along the coastlines.
I quickly became so enamoured with the boats of the Philippines that I was mocked mercilessly for the amount of time I spent photographing them. But I’m not ashamed; they are all fantastic.
In fact, stay tuned for a further article about the Filipino boat culture coming soon (mainly so I can excitedly spam you with all my photos…)
5: Filipino culture is fascinating.
I hadn’t realised just how much both Asian and Western culture have influenced the Philippines over the generations.
Years of ruling from Spain, the US and Mexico have resulted in a wonderful mixture of a nation that loves American music (and plays tunes EVERYWHERE!) yet runs on the laid-back ‘mañana’ mentality; a nation that has biblical quotations plastered on the bodies of rickshaws but also people reading palms and tarot cards in the street.
Our guide told us that many Filipinos are very superstitious: it’s not uncommon for people to say, “Excuse me, just passing by,” to the spirits that live in the trees, and to burn smoke and incense at night, when it’s the time of the spirits.
There are more obvious cultural signifiers, too – like the moment I forced our bus to stop so I could jump out and look at a mango tree with its fruits wrapped in newspapers. Does a great job of keeping the bats away, apparently.
6: The islands are a sport lover’s paradise.
I’m not the most sporty of travellers, but there was something about the Philippines that made me eager to try out every activity I was offered.
That meant snorkelling in the bays of deserted islands, riding a zipline across the sea, and even zooming through the jungle on ATV vehicles.
And getting absolutely covered in mud.
Image: Backpacker Banter
My favourite activity, though, was paddle boarding down the Loboc River on Bohol island.
After a slight initial panic that I’d fall off spectacularly, once I was firmly standing on the board everything was great. We moved so slowly and calmly, and it felt like we owned the river.
Occasionally we heard the voices of invisible children shouting hello through the thick banks of trees on either side, and came across groups of young boys jumping from a rope swing into the river – but for the most part, it was just us, the water and the cool breeze.
Image: Ladies What… Travel
7: There are bonafide tourist attractions everywhere.
As far as tourist attractions go, the Philippines is positively overflowing with interesting ones.
People looking for a bit of beach exploring can sign up for a Honda Bay island hopping tour: ours took us sailing around the near-empty beaches of Starfish Island, Cowrie Island and Panden Island, with ample time for a huge lunch buffet, snorkelling and sunbathing.
And a cheeky drink or two.
We also visited the subterranean river of Puerto Princesa, which has to be seen to be believed. An 80km long body of water snakes its way underground through a series of limestone caves, and is filled with waterfalls, stalagmites, stalagtites and a variety of birds, bats and insects.
The river was recently deemed one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, meaning the guides will have an increase in their boatloads of awestruck tourists for a long time yet. And presumably they’ll continue to explain how every stalagmite looks like some sort of vegetable for a while, too.
We took an even smaller boat through the mangroves on Bohol Island with an elderly Filipino boatman who sang to us about the importance of the mangrove tree as a natural habitat for wildlife, and later that night we took another boat through the pitch black darkness on a firefly tour.
Eventually we were able to spot clusters of fireflies that fluttered eerily around the tree branches: a completely surreal sight, and one that my poor photography skills definitely didn’t do justice.
The Chocolate Hills on Bohol Island were my favourite attraction. Over a thousand of these bizarre mounds dot one section of landscape – and then they suddenly stop. They’re made of grass covered limestone which have slowly been eroded by acidic rain over thousands of years into these conical shapes – but I almost prefer the slew of myths that attempt to explain where the hills come from.
Like a giant named Arogo, who fell for a human woman who happened to be engaged. He abducted her and she died from the fright – which of course made him so upset that his tears solidified into the hills.
Alternatively, you’ve got two giants fighting by hurling equally giant rocks at each other until they went home and forgot to clean up their mess.
The choice of legend is yours.
8: The landscape of the Philippines changes drastically.
Judging by those Chocolate Hills, it’s clearly obvious that the landscape of the Philippines is pretty unique.
On any given island, beaches on the coast will give way to humid, tropical jungle in the centre. There are rice paddies worked daily by farmers and fast flowing rivers cutting through the earth; winding roads that fall down steep inclines, and even cliffs appearing out of nowhere.
For me, the beauty of this is that you never get bored of staring out the window.
There’s always something new coming up around the corner – and you’ll probably find yourself jumping out of the car more than once.
9: Animals are all over the place.
If you’re an animal lover, there’s a lot of wildlife action on the islands to keep you interested.
There are the resident starfish in the shallows of the aptly named Starfish Island (which you may feel compelled to save the lives of when you see they’re exposed to the air), and the shoals of fish you’ll encounter as soon as you put your snorkel-covered face in the water.
Image: Ladies What… Travel
There are the four tiny tarsiers that blink wide-eyed at you from their sanctuary home on Bohol Island: nocturnal creatures who have almost no peripheral vision and hop like frogs when they’re on the ground.
Image: Backpacker Banter
And there’s even the occasional monkey swinging its way through the jungle. Or posing for family portraits on the signposts of local tourist attractions.
10: Filipinos are really eco-conscious.
One of the most unexpected aspects of life in the Philippines that I witnessed was how aware of their carbon footprint the Filipinos are.
Local food markets are only held weekly, which prompts people to grow their own produce and practice self-sufficiency. Garbage trucks drive through communities while ringing a bell so locals actively bring their trash over to the workmen.
Recycling is really common: jeepneys are built from the scraps of old cars and old American war jeeps, while old tyres are being converted into water containers, chairs, and even hammocks.
On Bohol Island we visited the Bee Farm, an organic farm which prides itself on presenting an alternative lifestyle, makes all its restaurant food with in-house, locally grown produce and serves up delicious dips and butters made from freshly harvested honey.
They even famously make their own ice cream from coconut milk and all natural ingredients. We dove straight into a myriad of tasting bowls – particularly the more interesting flavours like jackfruit, moringa, ube, avocado and dragonfruit.
Although somehow there was a bowl of the universally hated durian fruit, inexplicably turned into ice cream. Stay away from it.
11: Time in the Philippines is yours to spend how you want.
When you arrive in a city like Manila, filled with bright lights and skyscrapers, it’s easy to imagine that the Philippines favours modernity.
Life can move slowly here. History is relative. Out in the countryside, watching a farmer slowly ploughing through a field of mud with his water buffalo, it could be fifty years ago.
People don’t need to rush – and you don’t either, if that’s not what you want.
A slow pace of life is almost certainly what has made Filipinos as a nationality so happy, and I think it’s important to remember the values of simply existing in the moment.
Even while you’re on a riverboat taking Instagram-worthy photos on your phone with pop music blaring on the speakers, there will still be a young girl washing her clothes in the river.
Wondering what we’re doing.
Basically, it’s true what they say. It’s more fun in the Philippines!
The country of the Philippines and its people share a wonderfully sharp sense of humour – and it’s completely infectious.
I can’t remember the last time I laughed as much or as hard as I did during my week exploring the islands.
In the Philippines, you’ll do things you didn’t expect and meet people you’ve always wanted to. You’ll most likely fall in love with Asia – if you didn’t already. And when you’ve got seven thousand islands to explore, there’s a high chance you’ll get stuck in this incredible, unexpected country.
But that’s ok. There are worse places to lose yourself.
Have you been to the Philippines? What unexpected discoveries have you made about a new country?
Disclaimer: My week in the Philippines was at the generous invitation of the Philippine Department of Tourism, and all my positivity about the islands is totally their fault. I couldn’t help it.