Very diverse culture and landscape, plenty to see, not awash with
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
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
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