Feeling-Fine in the Phillipines
The first rule to imprint in your mind when visiting the Philippines is to be kind to yourself.
You can research copiously, prepare a short-story’s worth in length itinerary – but Philippines has other plans for you. The capricious weather will throw a fierce storm your way even when the forecast reads sunny, flights will be cancelled at short notice, cars will break down, and a myriad of local holidays will interfere with operating hours.
There’s nothing you can do about it. But at the end of it, you will come back, bewildered and slightly dazed, and wonder how you had such a great time after all.
The country today is a paradox of identities. A Spanish settlement for 300 years till the 1890s and subsequently ceded to the USA, Philippines was declared as an independent nation in 1946. In the years since its independence the country has seen political turbulence, and the rise of an economy with a widening and very visible gap between the rich and poor.
From the moment you land in the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, your senses will be immersed in the chaotic traffic on the roads, the smokey purr of the colourful jeepneys, and three wheelers darting through the roads. In the background, are Manila’s skyscrapers, proudly supporting the country in its race to be Asia’s fastest growing IT hub and start-up haven; glittering, seductive skyscrapers that tower over single-storeyed tin-roofed houses.
Manila is most famous for its nightlife, shopping, and the micro doses of history lessons.
When in Manila, plan a day trip to Intramuros – The container of the remnants of the city’s Spanish history.
The walled city stands in aberrant defiance to its swanky surroundings, museums depicting life in the 16th century Spanish settlement, art galleries, cafes, and the regal Fort Santiago. Walk at your own pace, and steer clear of touts who will try to coax you to visit a particular store or restaurant. There are gems like Papier Tole shop – a dusty little store, close to San Agustin church that dates back to 1618, that are perfect for souvenirs.
The church itself, built in the 1600s is a beautiful stop, don’t miss the ornate black gates on the side walls, of this world heritage site. Intramuros also housed some of Asia’s oldest universities, before they were shifted in the early 20th century to their present locations.
The next stop after you’ve had your fill of Spanish history, is Rizal Park. Find a quiet bench, or squat on the beds of rough, freshly mowed grass, watching twilight take over the white-blossomed trees.
Cap off your day with an authentic local food crawl. From Intramuros, cross over the Pasig River to find yourself in Manila’s Chinatown or Binondo. Believed to be the oldest Chinatown in the world, the place is famous for its food walks. You will find plenty of blogs on the best places to hit, and almost all of them will point you towards hole in wall joints, that wear weather beaten frowns and run-down dispositions. From dumplings to congee, beef to tofu, bakeries to tea houses- there’s something there for everyone.
If the narrow lanes, and headiness of grubby Binodo is not your style, then head to BGC – Bonifacio Global City – the swanky, high-end financial district of Manila. The sparkling glass facades of the high-rise office buildings is interspersed with plenty of malls, restaurants, pubs and clubs and together with the neighbouring area of Makati. Whether weekday or weekend, you will always find something to do.
Manila is a city that loves to celebrate. It’s cultural history, and demographic present make it fertile for every kind of festive jubilee.
The most visible of these, is Christmas. If you’re visiting any time after September, you will quickly be swept into Christmas carnival of light installations, fireworks display, carolling and decorations that last for four long months, building up to the big finale. This infectious spirit is not limited to Manila, our 100 odd kilometre drive on a wet, and otherwise dark night from Tagbilaran to Anda in the Island of the Bohol, was entirely illuminated by streetlights with a Christmas theme, bells, stars, and reindeer. The flip side though, is during Christmas eve and Christmas, practically everything is shut, including restaurants. It can be very hard to get a taxi at this time, so plan ahead.
Island Hopping in the Philippines
The sparkling emerald green and copper sulphate blue waters of the Philippines are gorgeous, and interestingly the water remains loyally iridescent even when the skies are overcast, and the sun goes absconding. This has made the islands very popular with tourists, and if you want to experience the country it its unspoilt non-commercial form, then the best thing to do would be to avoid the mainstream islands like Boracay, Cebu.
Instead consider Coron, Bohol and El Nido (northernmost tip of Palawan).
Bohol: Tagbilaran city has an airport, with regular connectivity to Manila. You can easily rent a self-driven car (International Drivers Permit NOT needed), and drive from Tagbilaran towards the northern parts of the island. We stayed in Anda for a few days, which is perfect for kayaking, snorkelling diving and if you’re in the right season, diving with whale sharks – the largest living fish in the world. Even in peak tourist season, Anda is a quiet escape, and you can experience unadulterated, non-cosmetic charm of life in a Philippines town. When in Bohol, it is worth putting a visit to the Chocolate Hills on your agenda. More than thousand hills, that resemble soft, mounds of chocolate stretch out for miles in every direction.
El Nido: El Nido is the northern most tip of Palawan. Palawan island has two main airports, El Nido and Puerto Princesa its often cheaper to fly into the latter, and then drive up to El Nido in a rented car.
Known for its island-hopping tours, put El Nido on your itinerary, to experience the famed translucent waters that make you feel like you are floating on glass. The town is full of unique stays and B&Bs, that let you experience island living. I would recommend choosing these over upmarket resorts, so you can meet fellow travellers, swap stories, and indulge in hearty home-cooked Filipino food.
Philippines is largely a meat-eaters haven. Pork, beef, and chicken are staples and surprising there’s not that much sea food on the menu. Vegetarian options are limited, but simply delicious, we were treated to juicy servings of charred sweet and salt Kalabasa(pumpkin), mixed greens, eggplant and vegetarian lumpia (deep fried springrolls)
Beware, vegetable preparations are not available widely, and are often cooked with lard so it’s advisable to stock up on packaged food, especially in the non-metro cities. Be prepared to eat generous servings of rice, it’s the most common side, even with your burger as an alternative to French fries.
With more than 7000 islands, and 150+ spoken languages, unique food, and terrain, no two trips to the country are identical. With the exception of the far south, most of the country is safe and welcome to tourists.
In its dual identity, of silky green rice fields and potholed muddy roads soaking up its rain together with gleaming, polished office buildings and residences, Philippines draws a strong parallel with India. The warm, cozy community spirit, throughout the country is inescapable, whether you’re waiting outside the grill-covered shop front of a grocery store in Bohol, or you’re ordering cocktails in a swanky bar in Manilla or debating the appropriate price of some jewellery in Anda, every exchange will quickly turn into a friendly conversation, and you will make a new friend.
It is this steadfast hospitality, that makes a visit to Philippines incomparable.