The Philippines got included on our itinerary all because we got an amazing seat sale on the tickets. While Jim and I were both curious about the country, we knew little about it until shortly before we arrived—which was nothing new for us! But like Vietnam, we soon discovered that it’s a big country; a conglomeration of islands in fact—7101 according to Lonely Planet! And it soon became very confusing to us to try to organise our itinerary for our mere 20 days here. Most tourists to the Philippines usually end up at either the island of Boracay, Cebu or Palawan and we probably would have too were it not for logistics and budget considerations and also that it was typhoon season. We thought we’d do the ‘simplest’ thing—to spend our time traveling only in the north of Luzon Island, where we’d arrive. And it turned out to be a great plan, despite the often long and tough traveling that we had to do. Northern Luzon, we discovered, has so much to offer: numerous World Heritage Sites, the Cordillera Mountains, beautiful beaches, and lots of history to experience. We are really glad that we had a chance to taste this region of the Philippines. So in our 20 days here, this is our list of:
· The People: Regardless of whether they were middle class, villagers, young or old, we found the Filipino people to be very reserved yet friendly. We encountered many strangers who tried to be helpful when we approached them, and we rarely had any incidence with being taken advantage of.
· Politeness: There is a politeness in their culture that is refreshing yet sometimes uncomfortable too. All Filipinos, including the poor, the villagers, the city-folk, the well-to-do, and the young addressed us, including the girls, as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’. Our kids found this strange to be called ‘Ma’am’!
· The food: Filipino cuisine could be really delicious, with influences commonly from Chinese and Spanish.
· The Shopping Malls: The Filipino middle class love their shopping malls, and they indeed rival those found in America. Great for getting your shopping fix.
|SM Mall Baguio|
· Free 21-Day Visa On Arrival: Given to nearly all nationalities automatically.
· Accommodation: Most of the accommodation that we found was relatively expensive relative to the cost of living here and to that in the rest of SEA, with the exception of Malaysia. The rooms were usually quite small, with separate shared bathrooms the norm, and sometimes even just cold water showers. And this would usually still cost between P600-800/$16-19.00USD. To get your own bathroom attached, it would be a minimum of P1300/$30 USD, and the size of the room would usually still be small. Not very good options for families, and usually they would charge you an extra P300/400 ($7-9.50 USD) per person for more than 2 people in the room, although kids under 12yrs would be free.
· Food: While Filipino food could be delicious, often home-cooked options were difficult and/or expensive to find. More often than not, the locals ate either American fast food like McDonalds’, KFC and Pizza Hut, or local fast food which entailed pots of cooked food sitting around, neither heater nor chilled, all day and being served up to you at room temperature with rice, which was also sometimes served cold. Hmm, sounds like food poisoning waiting to happen! We ended up eating at ‘Jollibee’ (also a franchise) a lot, which served American as well as freshly prepared Filipino fast food favourites. Our kids have never eaten so much fast food in their entire lives (we don’t eat it at home, except for pizza), and while it was a novelty at first, we felt very unhealthy by the time we left the Philippines.
|Armed Security Guard inside 'Jollibee'|
· The high security: Seeing security guards armed with semi-automatic shot guns and lots of extra bullets is a sight that as Aussie/Canadians, we are not used to nor are comfortable with. The need to go through a security pat down just to enter a middle class shopping centre is a bit unnerving too (why the need??). You also must have all your bags searched and yourself patted down upon entering the commuter train stations. During morning peak time, we had to open all of our backpacks while the rest of the people behind us patiently changed queues! It clearly belies the fact that the society is full of contradictions and what you see is not what you get. On the surface, the Filipinos seem like good religious family people; yet we are told that guns are easily attained and many respectable people have no qualms carrying them for ‘emphasis’; people often get mysteriously killed over monetary disputes.
· Missing toilet seats: We found toilet seats were missing 80% of the time. While it is understandable if this was the case in public toilets, it did not preclude those in private property such as from hotel rooms or people’s houses!
· Very ‘American’: When we were in amongst the middle class population, it felt like we were in some American city. Not only are there are American fast-food chains everywhere, but their love of the shopping mall too has a very American feel to it. Guess the period of American occupation in the early 19th C really left its mark. If one only spent time in the malls and the main tourist sights, you really wouldn’t experience any Filipino culture at all.
· Relatively High Cost of Living: Admission fees seemed to be unusually high for such a relatively poor country. Maybe it was to offset some of the cost of security, as even the great Children’s Playground in Rizal Park charged a P10/.25 cent admission for everyone and while this isn’t high, it does discriminate against the poor families and their children.
|Children's Playground, Rizal Park, Manila|
The Nitty Gritty:
So how did our budget fare in the Philippines? We had heard many stories that the Philippines is a very expensive place to visit, with accommodation and excusions being particularly high, relative to other countries in South East Asia. We also heard from a few others that it wasn’t that bad. So we really didn’t know what we’d find. In the end, after 20 days there, we averaged $57.00 USD per day for all 4 of us. Luckily the low cost of fast food offset the higher accommodation prices that we found in the bigger cities. The opposite was true in the places where we found less expensive accommodation: we ended up eating better freshly cooked meals, but they were more expensive. Overland travel using local buses was very inexpensive, but the higher cost of ‘attractions’ meant we didn’t ‘do’ a lot, particularly in Manila, where there were quite an range of things to do with kids, but we found it was very expensive.