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Last updated : Nov 2009
A Beautiful, "Off the Beaten Track" Travel Destination
Rating :

Jun 04 '01

Pros: Very diverse culture and landscape, plenty to see, not awash with tourists.
Cons: Tourist resorts and tour arrangements often of mediocre quality, difficult travel at times.

The Philippines is a rather curious archipelago in the South China Sea, comprising an interesting, idiosyncratic mix of cultures that hold a special charm for many. Magellan discovered the islands in 1521, and since then, despite the subsequent death of Magellan at the hands of natives, the Philippines was a Spanish colony until the 1896-1898 revolution. The Filipino insurgents hardly had time to rest on their victory, though, before American forces “benevolently assimilated” the new nation. A valiant eight-year war ended in defeat for the revolutionaries, and American occupation was to continue until eventual independence in 1946.

Centuries of Spanish rule mean that Roman Catholicism is extremely powerful in the Philippines. The Philippines is, in fact, the only predominantly Christian country in the whole of Asia. Thus, one is treated to a multitude of beautiful churches and chapels, some dating back to Spanish rule, and a wealth of provincial festivals coinciding with important dates on the Catholic calendar. The shorter but more recent American occupation also makes the Philippines highly Westernized, with innumerable elements of American culture prevalent in the big cities. Spacious shopping malls, luxurious restaurants, fast food joints, the basketball culture, and even the familiar yellow school buses are to be found. Since English is an official language of the islands (along with Tagalog), one is far more likely to be understood in Manila than in, say, Kuala Lumpur or Tokyo.

Manila, the capital city, like most cities in developing countries, contains advanced infrastructure, top-quality hotels, and a vibrant nightlife scene, alongside shantytowns and poverty. Unfortunately, traffic and pollution problems plague the city, and this is hardly helped by a poorly organized public transport scheme. It is certainly not worth visiting the Philippines for Manila alone – it is best taken as a base of operations, from which to venture out into the provinces.

The Philippines is awash with gorgeous beaches, none of which I have found to be overcrowded with tourists. Boracay is probably among the most famous islands in the Philippines, with marvelous white sand beaches and an ample number of resorts for tourists. The hotel I once stayed in, Boracay Terraces, was on an ideal section of sand that we had almost to ourselves, and provided good quality accommodation (albeit with salt water coming out of the taps). The locals on the island have benefited from the recent influx of tourists, and many are now shop and restaurant owners. Others, former fishermen seemingly, now rent out their motorized boats (rather rickety-looking, but surprisingly sea-worthy) to anyone wishing to see something of the island and its environs – for a very reasonable price as well.

I also stayed at a resort known as Coco Beach, rather remote only in terms of the transport options available. Unlike Boracay, though, the resort was virtually the entire island. The accommodation was good, with an impressive swimming pool and bar, but the beach itself was decidedly mediocre for Philippine standards. I saw little point in undergoing a long journey involving stages by car, bus, and two sizes of what could have been fishing boats, simply to remain within the resort and swim in the pool as opposed to off the beach.

The third island I visited was Marinduque, much larger than the other two, and almost approaching Boracay’s beauty. This island is famous for the Moriones Festival held on Holy Week in Easter. This is held in honor of a Roman soldier who was converted to Christianity immediately following the Crucifixion, before being beheaded. Locals dress up as masked Roman legionnaires, in detailed costumes with elaborate masks. This is not only for fun, but done as penance for the year’s sins – remember it is not easy to walk around all day under the hot sun in such gear. Other, even more ardently repentant souls (known as flagellants) deliberately cut themselves with razors. It was not quite as dramatic as I had expected, with most flagellants smoking cigarettes during the mutilation process, but this must still have been significantly painful.

The highlight of the festival is the annual pageant, held in the main town of the island. The cast is entirely native, with the play relating the story of the aforementioned Roman soldier, entirely in Filipino. Microphones hidden on each of the actors convey the dialogue to the standing multitude watching the event. I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the acting – honorable mention goes to whoever played Pontius Pilate in the 1995 production.

Much of the Philippines can be experienced on the main island of Luzon itself, which houses Manila. Tagaytay is only a couple of hours’ drive away. Apart from the Tagaytay Highlands resort and golf course, driving or walking to the top of the Tagaytay ridge affords a breathtaking view of the Taal volcano, which is thought to be still active.

Subic Bay is also only a few hours away from the capital. A former American Army Base, it has now been converted into a resort and yacht club. Subic is popular for its notorious Duty Free shop, only slightly overrated I found. Surrounding Subic are sections of genuine rainforest, still populated by native tribes of Aetas who are friendly to tourists. They can occasionally be persuaded to serve as guides, for a small price. Monkeys are also common to these parts. They have grown so used to human contact that they will come right up to cars and accept food (though feeding them is strictly prohibited). There is even a notable bat cave at Cubi Point, within the rainforest area. At around dusk, during the summer months, one can spot the first bats hovering around a curious tall tree in the middle of a rainforest clearing. Disappointing at first, but eventually the sky high above is filled with bats. We moved to a nearby vantage point overlooking the bay. Here, I was treated to one of the most stunning sights I have ever seen in my life. The bay was tantalizingly lit by pale moonlight, and high overhead a huge, seemingly endless column of bats could be seen, quietly making their way to some unknown point in the distance.

There are so many other things to visit on the island of Luzon. Villa Escudero is a Spanish villa left over from the colonial period, with an interesting museum and an uncanny restaurant in which the tables are actually standing in flowing river water near a miniature waterfall. A boat trip through the Pagsanjan rapids is also not to be missed. Finally, Baguio, up in the mountainous north of Luzon, enjoys a temperate climate almost European in nature.

There are so many places in the Philippines that I have yet to visit, and so many undiscovered treasures lying in wait. I am sure more adventurous travelers – by that I mean not only scuba divers and hikers, but also those tourists who want something more than lazy days on the beach – would find experiences to treasure in the islands. The Philippines is, after all, relatively off the beaten track as far as typical tourist destinations go. Though the beaches are of the highest quality, and are far from overcrowded, the resorts themselves do not compare to those found in for example Cancun or Nice. In addition, travel can not only be immensely harrowing and time-consuming, but can also prove quite dangerous – overcrowded ferries to nearby islands are a common thing and capsizing ferries are far from unheard of.

Therefore, I would advise those primarily concerned with beach and water sport holidays to stay well away. Beaches of nearly the same quality can be found in the French Riviera (I say nearly in the most generous of senses only), with better quality accommodation. On the other hand, I would highly recommend the Philippines to more adventurous visitors with time and money on their hands, and to those up for something new, interested in foreign culture, and ready for the experience of a lifetime.

Best Suited For: Friends
Best Time to Travel Here: Jun - Aug