11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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?!

11 Things I Never Expected 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.

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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.

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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.

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines
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.

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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.

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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.

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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.

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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.

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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…

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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?

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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.

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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…)

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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.

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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.

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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.

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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.

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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.

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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.

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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.

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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.

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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.

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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.

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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.

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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.

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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.

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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.

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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.

But truthfully?

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.

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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.

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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.

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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? 

11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

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.

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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43 Responses to 11 Things I Never Expected About the Philippines

  1. Traveling Rockhopper August 9, 2015 at 9:28 am #

    I visited Philippines last year 🙂 and fell in love with Chocolate Hills! 🙂

    • Flora August 10, 2015 at 10:27 am #

      I fell for them too – they’re incredible!

  2. Anna August 9, 2015 at 4:15 pm #

    Hmm… yoru Loboc River cruise seems waaaaaay different than mine (I just went with a group of non-bloggers) as I see you could actually interact with children performing and the food you got looks actually way more awesome – we got some cold chicken with cold rice and watermelon 0_o But I loved Bohol and its cute tarsiers anyway;)

    • Flora August 10, 2015 at 11:58 am #

      I think there must be different cruises along the Loboc River, Anna! And I totally agree with your love of the tarsiers :p

  3. Hannah @ Traveling Banana August 9, 2015 at 4:38 pm #

    WOW the Philippines looks AWESOME! Gotta add that to my ever-growing list!!

    • Flora August 10, 2015 at 4:00 pm #

      Definitely Hannah – it’s such an amazing place!

  4. Chris August 10, 2015 at 3:02 am #

    Awwwwww can we go back now please?!

    • Flora August 10, 2015 at 4:04 pm #

      I’m all over that plan. Meet you at the airport again??

  5. imcai12 August 10, 2015 at 1:55 pm #

    I love your article! Very positive. I love the spirit. Thank you for loving our country. I’m reading your article inside the jeepney and I missed the place where I should drop off. Hahahaa! Anyway it’s worth reading!

    • Flora August 10, 2015 at 5:31 pm #

      Ahh that’s so fantastic to hear! Although I’m sorry that you missed your stop :p

  6. GUS August 10, 2015 at 2:55 pm #

    YEAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!! Philippine mangoes are the best in the world!! 😀
    Thanks, Flora, for the highly positive post about my country. Glad you guys had fun! 😀


    • Flora August 10, 2015 at 5:32 pm #

      They totally are Gus! Much too delicious for their own good – I couldn’t stop eating them :p Glad you enjoyed the article!

  7. jonny August 10, 2015 at 8:00 pm #

    This makes me so excited about going there in three weeks’ time!! I am flying to Sydney and Philippine Airlines had the cheapest flight so, without knowing anything about the Philippines, I booked a 10-day layover. I’m so excited!! 🙂

    • Flora August 12, 2015 at 8:05 pm #

      Ahh Jonny that’s such a great spontaneous decision! Glad you’re excited about visiting the Philippines – and you’ll absolutely have the best time 😛

  8. scarletscorchdroppers August 11, 2015 at 6:42 am #

    I love the Philippines, the people are just so wonderful and the food is amazing. Thats before you even think about the gorgeous scenery! I haven’t had chance to visit many of the islands yet, but Malapascua has been my favourite so far. Its such a small little island and such a little paradise! Palawan and Bohol are high on my list for when I make it back!


    • Flora August 21, 2015 at 2:49 pm #

      Ooh Malapascua sounds great! I’ll put it on my list for whenever I get myself back to the Philippines – sooner rather than later I hope :p

  9. kikoleda1985 August 11, 2015 at 7:03 am #

    Thanks for a great article Flora. I will keep my eye on to read the next one you said will come out soon. The Philippines is one of the countries I have in my travel plans for 2016. I hope to read a good article about Iran/Taiwan and Sri Lanka also. Those are my next project. Thanks again and keep the good work.

    • Flora August 21, 2015 at 2:50 pm #

      Glad you enjoyed it! I’ll be posting the next one soon 🙂 And you’ve got a great point there – I’d seriously love to get to Iran!!

  10. adventureliesinfront August 11, 2015 at 10:40 pm #

    The Philippines have been at the top of my list for ages! Definitely want to plan out a long period of time in this country, hopefully in the near future! I’ve only heard good things and your post just sold me 😛

    • Flora August 21, 2015 at 2:52 pm #

      I’d have loved more time out there – hope you make the most of it!!

  11. Hayley | Lovepuffin August 12, 2015 at 1:31 am #

    I’m visiting the Philippines in November and can’t wait! I’m struggling to plan two weeks in the country, let alone one! Thanks for this, I’m bookmarking and coming back later! 🙂

    • Flora August 21, 2015 at 2:55 pm #

      Wooo great news Hayley! You’re going to LOVE it 🙂

  12. Margaret August 12, 2015 at 2:32 pm #

    Thank you flora, for your beautiful article. I’m from the Philippines and Im naturally used to people being helpful and friendly to strangers. I’ve been to Europe and it was a stark contrast to the sunny disposition of the Philippines. You pointed out everything I love about my country. 💖💖💖

    • Flora August 21, 2015 at 10:02 pm #

      Thank you so much for reading, Margaret! I’m so glad you agree with what I said 🙂

  13. Tina August 13, 2015 at 1:42 am #

    What I really love about the Philippines is their people. Any where I go, all I can see is faces smiling at me. How can you not love that..

    • Flora August 21, 2015 at 10:02 pm #

      Yep, I totally agree Tina!

  14. aharonhadas August 15, 2015 at 8:35 pm #

    This is very interesting, I never visited the philipines so I had no idea, good to know!!

  15. Leigh August 17, 2015 at 3:05 pm #

    I had never considered the Phillipines as a destination, but it sounds pretty great!

    • Flora August 21, 2015 at 10:15 pm #

      It’s definitely worth a trip!

  16. Alex B August 19, 2015 at 2:00 am #

    I hate to sound like a pessimist, but I’m genuinely curious how you thought that moving around the Philippines was easy!? Did you book flights in advanced and only go to islands in one area? I spent three weeks there in April and had an extremely difficult time moving around from island to island. The boats were slow, inconvenient and difficult to find information about, and flights from one place to another were usually $150+! I actually ended up stuck in a small city that was just a transit hub with nothing to see for two and a half days before I could get on a boat back to Cebu (which I was going to so I could get the hell out of the country!) because it was sold out for half the week.

    • Flora August 21, 2015 at 10:17 pm #

      Sorry you didn’t enjoy your time in the Philippines, Alex! Yep, we’d pre-booked some flights but all the boats I took were sorted then and there, and we didn’t have any trouble. Maybe you just had some bad luck?

      • Alex B August 23, 2015 at 5:21 pm #

        I don’t think it was really bad luck. It was just long distance, popular routes that fill up if you don’t book in advanced.

        • Flora August 24, 2015 at 8:08 am #

          Sounds about right 🙂

  17. Cailin August 21, 2015 at 2:51 pm #

    Your trip looked amazing and everything is so colourful and the people seem so friendly! I can’t wait to visit for myself someday! 🙂

    • Flora August 21, 2015 at 10:17 pm #

      Ahh I’m sure you’d love it over there, Cailin!

  18. Joanne August 23, 2015 at 6:30 am #

    Hi Flora, thank you for loving lur country. I hope to could come back and visit more islands. Do check out Palaui Island in Cagayan Valley. Or if in Cebu, head North to Bantayan Island, Dive with thresher sharks in Malapascua Island and also Kalanggaman island. Excited to read your next post. 💙

    • Flora August 24, 2015 at 8:08 am #

      Thanks so much for reading, Joanne!! I’d love to have more time to explore the Philippines, especially the islands you’ve suggested. Hopefully sooner rather than later! 🙂

  19. Justin Carnett October 7, 2015 at 12:57 pm #

    Thanks for the article, Flora! I wish I could visit Philippines! And what impressed me the most is your dinner on a leafs! Looks very-very beatiful!
    Can I give you a piece of advice? If you’re had a problem of waiting someone, or you can’t get to the right point on time you should try to use well-way.com where you can create a trip plan by 5 minutes!

  20. Pearl Luna November 27, 2015 at 12:37 pm #

    Hello Flora. I am going to visit Philippines next month. I have read that people has amazing culture. I can`t wait to feel the real Philippines. Best regards!

    • Flora December 7, 2015 at 12:53 pm #

      Hope you have a fantastic trip, Pearl – thanks for stopping by!

  21. pikichewcom May 23, 2016 at 8:36 am #

    Reading your article makes me happy that our country shares great experience with you 🙂 Keep safe in all your travels

  22. Ren March 1, 2017 at 6:53 pm #

    Awesome read.. I made it finally last November. While I was not to keen on Manila (ok Intramuros was interesting).. but once outside the city.. wow.. completely understand your comments on boats. Thanks for being the only blogger to mention the Mexican influence. Until Mexican independence, the islands were ruled through Mexico, a fact that interested me.

    • Flora March 9, 2017 at 12:20 pm #

      Great to hear you enjoyed your visit to the Philippines, Ren! I always love finding out the international influences on different countries too 🙂

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