It’s more fun in the Philippines! This quick guide to the Philippines covers all your basic traveling needs to Southeast Asia’s number one beach destination!
IN A NUTSHELL
Hold up. Wait a minute. Did you just say you’re headed to the Philippines?
There are few things in life I would claim expertise in. However, a lifetime of knowledge being Filipino has granted me a certain authority on this subject matter. For those of you are headed to the Philippines/thinking about visiting the Philippines/love Filipinos… Why you are in luck! This guide will help you learn the ins and out of this culture and its people, which will no doubt make your stay in this archipelago (aka a group of islands-7,107 islands to be exact) all the more fun!
The Philippines has risen in popularity over the years, becoming a well-known destination in Southeast Asia for beach bums. The island chain, made up of three main island entities: Luzon (the largest island) to the north, Visayas in the middle, and Mindanao to the south, boasts large lengths of continuous coastline with white sand, as well as prime diving locations such as the frequently visited congregation of twelve sunken WWII Japanese battleships in Coron Bay. The country’s capital, Manila, is an urban mecca for shopping enthusiasts, boasting three out of the world’s top ten largest malls—SM Megamall, SM North Edsa and SM Mall of Asia. For those looking to swim with whale sharks, the largest fish in the sea, head on over to Donsol Bay in Cebu.
But aside from its call to nature lovers and urbanites, The Philippines also entices tourists with the unparalleled hospitality of its people. The locals refer to themselves as ‘Pinoys’ and ‘Pinays.’ Call me biased, but there is no populace in the world that compares to Filipinos in terms of generosity and good manners. Plastered on most faces is a relentless smile, full of warmth. There is no Filipino I have come across who isn’t willing to share their joie de vivre, a love of life and of living, with any stranger they cross paths with. For Filipinos, its about family, food and friends in that order. It’s a society centered around fun: the “unofficial” number one sport in the Philippines is watching beauty pageants and our favorite form of feasting is called a boodle fight or kamayan, where food is served across a table laid with banana leaves and partakers eat with their hands. Just don’t take offense when Filipinos don’t show up on time as lateness is a national epidemic.
Some fun facts about the Philippines and a dozen more if you’re curiosity is piqued!
- The Philippines has the longest Christmas season, with celebrations starting in September and lasting until the first week of January.
- Divorce is illegal in the Philippines.
- The Philippines has won the title of most emotional society in the world.
- The Philippines is the 5th largest Christian country in the world.
- The Philippine flag is the only flag in the world that inverts its colors during warfare.
- During Manny Pacquiao fights, the crime rate in Metro Manila drops to zero. And yes, for those who don’t know, the famous lightweight boxer is a full-blooded Filipino.
For those planning on visiting the Philippines, some things to take into consideration
- Transportation: Metro Manila is one of the most heavily congested cities in the world with traffic jams so bad, it’s enough to deter anyone from ever wanting to be in a car again. A supposedly 20-min ride can take upwards to an hour if you’re caught in rush hour. While there is an MRT line, it is more comfortable (and still fairly inexpensive) to opt for Grab Taxi or Uber (just make sure you have an active SIM card). Traveling around the country is a bit of a headache as well and is quite hard for DIY-ers. The most trustworthy method to get around is by plane. Cebu Pacific is the number one domestic carrier. Buses come in close second although be careful of your belongings while doing long overnight rides. Taxis are fine but make sure the meter is on and you jot down the license plate first if alone.
- Climate: Located in a tropical region and on the ring of fire makes the Philippines quite susceptible to natural disasters. That being said, make sure you plan accordingly lest your dream vacation gets derailed by an incoming super typhoon (Haiyan 2013 anyone?) The two main seasons are the dry and wet seasons. The best month to come during the dry season (Nov-May) is January; come April-May, you’d have heat stroke being outside for more than 30 minutes. The wet season (Jun-Oct) promises daily spurts of showers and the unpredictable nature of tropical storms wreaks havoc all throughout the season. Bring mosquito repellent and plenty of sun block.
- Food: Filipino cuisine remains relatively unfamiliar due to its insular nature among Filipino communities. This is not a vegetarian cuisine so chances are you will be struggling to find something without meat but have no fear, there are SOME options. Just not a lot. Why is eating more fun in the Philippines? Read my argument here.
- Currency: The Philippine unit of currency is the peso ₱ with paper note denominations that come in 20, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000 PHP. Coins are still used in the currency and range from 1, 5, and 10 pesos.
The current exchange rate is $1 USD = ₱48 PHP.
HOW DO YOU SAY?
How are you? – Kumusta? (koo-moo-stah)
Thank you (very much) – (Maraming) Salamat (ma-ra-meeng sah-lah-maht)
Yes – Opo (oh-poh)
No – Hindi (hin-deh)
Let’s eat– Kain tayo! (kah-een-tah-yoh)
Let’s go! – Tara na! (tah-rah-nah)
I don’t know– Hindi ko alam (hin-dee-koh-ah-lahm)
Where is… – Nasaan ang… (nah-sah-ahnh-ahng…)
How much is this? – Magkano to? (mag-ka-know-toe)
Delicious – Masarap (mah-sah-rahp)
Older Man/Older Female – Kuya/Ate (koo-yah/ah-teh)
NAVIGATE A MENU
Every household has its own recipe and it would be a shame if you left the Philippines without every trying a plate of adobo. Adobo is a type of marinade consisting of vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, oil and bay leaves. Braise your meat of choice be it pork, chicken or beef, and you’ll get this intensely tender meat that has a beautiful flavor profile. You can also adobo vegetables like spinach (also known as morning glory) or add potatoes to the pot or some more balance to the richness of the marinade.
This dish was originally introduced to the Filipinos by the Chinese, coming from the Hokkien word, “pian e sit,” meaning “something convenient cooked.” Today, it is the centerpiece of every Filipino fiesta. There are two main versions: pancit bihon, which uses thin cellophane noodles, and pancit canton, which uses thick egg noodles. The most savory preparation is pancit palabok using a shrimp-based sauce and garnished with crushed chicharon (deep fried pork bits), chopped shrimp, slices of hard boiled eggs, boiled pork and scallions.
Want to learn how to make Pancit Bihon? Check out my ‘Food Finds’ post featuring a video tutorial with my sister Mira.
‘Silog’ is the standard three-part Filipino breakfast. You get the word ‘silog’ from the garlic fried rice (sinangág) and a fried egg (itlog). These two are always served with a protein and you can order any type of breakfast you want by tacking the meat’s name to the beginning of silog. My favorite is paired with tocino, which is pork belly that has been marinated for several hours in a sauce of sugar, salt and garlic, and then fried until it caramelizes and forms a shiny, crunchy coat around the meat.
Here are list of the most common silogs:
- Tapsilog – made with tapas, a Filipino beef jerky
- Cornsilog – paired with canned corned beef (that usually comes peppered with onions or cubed potatoes)
- Toscilog – paired with caramelized pork ** my favorite!
- Longsilog – made with longganisa, a cured sausage
- Hotsilog – made with hotdog, ask for the red hot dogs while in the Philippines if you want a juicier type of hot dog
- Porksilog – paired with pork
- Chicksilog – paired with chicken, either grilled or fried
- Litsilog – paired with lechon, roasted pork (see below for more details)
The most famous of all Filipino pork delicacies, lechon is the king of every potluck. This whole pig is roasted on a spit over an fire pit for several hours before being paired with Mang Tomas, a local all-purpose condiment with a very complex taste. The brown sauce, made from liver, vinegar, sugar, pepper and bread crumbs goes perfectly with the crispy skin of a perfectly cooked lechon. Bourdain named lechon the “best [pork] in the world” in a blog post entitled “The Hierarchy of Pork.” The best lechon can be sampled in Cebu.
A bar food for the masses, sisig is a mixture of pork bits (i.e. head, liver, cheeks, snout) served in a sizzling hot plate and mixed with onions and chilis. Squirt some calamansi over the mix, a citrus fruit used to garnish almost every Filipino dish, and top with an egg. The egg cooks over the meat making this the perfect meal to counteract that San Miguel beer you’ll be drinking on the beach.
Filipino-style spring rolls. These little fried cigar parcels are the perfect bite-sized treat but be warned, you’ll be an addict before you know it! The finger food was brought over by the Chinese and the most popular variation, the Lumpiang Shanghai, is delivery of pork pureed with mixed vegetables wrapped in rice paper sheet, coated with an egg wash, and then deep-fried. The outer shell is extra crunchy when served fresh and is often complimented by a sweet and sour sauce. There is also a non-fried version called Lumpiang Sariwa, which is more like a crepe.
A party in a cup! Halo-Halo is the most outlandish of desserts. Ingredients like sweet beans, jackfruit, tapioca balls, chunks of leche flan (Filipino egg custard) and nata de coco (jellied coconut) are piled high on a bed of shaved ice, doused in evaporated milk, and garnished with pinipig (toasted rice.) The crown in the jewel of this delightful dessert is the vibrant purple ube ice cream, which has been called “The New Matcha” by Elite Daily.
There isn’t a Filipino person you will meet that doesn’t LOVE Jollibee!!! Jollibee is the only fast food restaurant that domestically outsells McDonalds, the world’s most popular fast food chain. The signature dish is the Chicken Joy, fried chicken coated in a thick batter that means there’s so much more of “the good stuff” in every bite. A Chicken Joy meal is served with white rice and gravy. There’s also JollySpaghetti, Pinoy-style spaghetti dotted with sliced hot dogs and drenched in a sauce infused with banana ketchup (meaning its a tad bit sweeter than what you are used to) and the Yum Burger, a hamburger served with a slice of pineapple. If you think you’re about to skip out on dessert, you clearly have never tried Mango-Peach pie, with a molten filling of mango-peach fusion. OH MY WORD!
PLAN YOUR JOURNEY
The capital city of Manila is located on the island of Luzon. A bustling metropolis, the traffic can be maddening but don’t let it ward you off. Manila its full of surprises such as the world’s oldest Chinatown, Binondo, and well-preserved Spanish colonial enclave, Intramuros. Manila is actually a mega city called Metro Manila comprised of sixteen smaller “cities.” The main city is Quezon City. Most tourists tend to congregate in Makati, the financial hub of the capital and known for its awesome nightlife. One thing you wouldn’t think about doing but realy should is visit one of the malls in town. Did you know Manila is home to three of the world’s largest malls? If you want a taste of local life and an escape from the oppressive humidity, pop into a mall. It will seriously be a sight to marvel. For a more extensive post on Manila, check out my ‘Whereabouts’ guide: Top Five Things to Do in Manila.
Best method of transportation: Stick to Uber or GrabTaxi. You’ll see tricycles and jeepneys but unless you are versed in the local tongue, it’ll be hard to convey where you need to go properly. Taxis can be somewhat sketch, especially at nighttime. A railway line does exist but its very uncomfortable and almost always crowded at all hours of the day.
Only a few days ago was Boracay named ‘The World’s Best Island” in Condé Nast Traveler’s 2016 Readers’ Choice Awards. The island getaway has been greatly transformed by the effects of tourism within the last decade but you can’t beat the beautiful sunsets that paint the sky come dusk. Also, Boracay boasts predominantly white sand beaches, which means seriously Instagram-worthy shots. Check out Jonah’s Fruit Shake and Snack Bar for the best milkshakes in town that come served in water bottles. This is a party island so if you’re looking for some peace and relaxation, you’re better off jetting to Palawan.
How to get there: No direct flights are available so you must fly to to either Caticlan or Kalibo. Caticlan is closer to Boracay, only a 10-20 minute boat ride from Caticlan Jetty Port, while flights to Kalibo are cheaper but the airport is 60-km away.
The capital of the Visayan islands, Cebu is the best jump-off point to kickstart your island hopping adventure in the Philippines. The island is known for hosting a number of festivals such as the Dinagat Festival, celebrating the fishing heritage of the Cordovanhons, and the Kabkaban Festival, a festival in honor of the patron saint of Carcar, St. Catherine. The highlight of this festival is a ritual dance meant to drive off bad spirits. There are a number of first-class diving spots and insanely beautiful waterfalls, like Kawasan Waterfalls. You can also swim with whale sharks in Donsol Bay, the world’s largest fish. Just make sure to do your research and go with the most ethical company.
How to get there: A one-hour flight from Manila. The country’s largest budget carrier, Cebu Pacific, operate several direct flights throughout the day to Cebu City. You can also reach Cebu directly from a number of Asian destinations.
It is my personal suggestion that if you have time t experience only one place in the Philippines, make sure its Palawan. This island chain is home to Puerto Princesa Underground River, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the world’ longest underground river, the gorgeous limestone karsts of El Nido, and the perfectly isolated Coron famed for its incredible collection of WWII-era shipwrecks that one can admire not only as a certified diver, but also as a snorkeler. The conservation efforts have been so rigid that the nature offered by Palawan is so pristine and unaltered. Throngs of tourists have yet to invade the island, which is why it has been hailed as “The Last Frontier” in the Philippines.
How to get there: Fly to Puerto Princesa by way of Manila, Cebu, and Iloilo. about an hour and a half flight. El Nido is a six-to-eight hour drive from Puerto Princesa depending on roadside conditions. If you are thinking about heading to Coron or El Nido only, it’s better to simply fly there from Manila to save time however, the prices are a bit more inflated compared to flying into Puerto Princesa.
Postcard-perfect beaches are almost the first thing that pops up in people’s minds when thinking about the Philippines has much to offer for the intrepid spirit. The Cordillera highlands in northern Luzon are home to some of the most culturally-vibrant ethnic minorities, such as the Igorot, “the earth people” who guard the famous Banaue rice terraces carved into the mountainside. Popular tourist destinations such as Baguio, a perfect summer retreat due it relatively cool climate (for being in the subtropics) and Sagada, the site of Echo Valley’s mysterious hanging coffins.
How to get there: The road to the north from Manila is incredibly strenuous overland, with the journey taking anywhere between 8-10 hours to Banaue and 12-14 hours to Sagada. The route to Sagada is filled with hairpin turns so pack that anti-motion sickness medicine if you’re sensitive. You can fly to Tuguegarao, the nearest commercial airport to these locations and proceed on a road trip by bus. From Tuguegarao to Bagiuo, it’s about a 600 PHP (approx $13 USD), 5-6 hour bus ride and Banaue and Sagada are along the way.
Want to add more stops to your itinerary? Visit my ‘Wanderlist: The Philippines’ post.
For more quick guides, check out my ‘Quick Guide to Korea.‘
I’m proud to be a Filipino and wouldn’t have it other way. Any other Filipinos in the house with something more to share? To people who have already visited, what did you think? Leave a comment below! xoxo Izzy
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