Some Philippine Travel Tips

I just came back from the PAMS meeting in Batangas, with a stop at Arizona Dive Shop in Subic on the way. It was a fun trip, albeit one with lots of time in buses. Here are some thoughts on traveling in the Philippines:

Take your time. The Mercator projection is a way of drawing the surface of a sphere (Planet Earth) onto a flat surface. This distorts the sizes of objects on the sphere, shrinking those near the equator. Greenland looks huge. The Philippines look small. They aren’t. The larger islands of the archipelago are big landmasses. Yesterday it took me 10 hours to travel, by bus, through about a quarter of Luzon, the big island in the north. It was fun to see Luzon. Still, I had enough of sitting in buses for a few days, now.

It naturally takes longer to get anywhere if you have to interrupt your road trip for a ferry ride to get to the next island. The roads in the Philippines are sometimes good, sometimes not so good (better in the north it seems). The inland of many larger islands is quite mountainous, and the windy roads up and down the mountains slow down every trip. What looks like a neighboring town on the map might be a 2 hour road-trip away.

If you plan to “do” 3 destinations in 10 days, you will spend more time in planes, buses and vans than on the beach. Don’t. In fact, of you want to travel from one end of Cebu/Luzon/Leyte to the other, plan a rest-day somewhere in-between, chill, and check out what’s there. Possibly you’ll find amazing waterfalls or lime-stone caves. In any case you will find fun locals and a karaoke setup.

Enjoy the view. The Philippines are largely the result of volcanic activity. Last week I was in the mountain region of Batangas, in the south of Luzon. What fantastic landscapes! If in the Philippines, check out more than the beaches.

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Enjoy the snacks. When riding on a bus, snack vendors will get on the bus every once in a while. It’s worth trying those snacks! Some of them are greasy pieces of pork-grease (not my thing), but I love all of the variants of sticky rice, and the coconut-pies. Yesterday I had candy made from water buffalo milk. Tasty, and unusual!

Use the Filipino GPS. One of the main advantages of the Philippines as a travel destination is that almost everyone speaks at least basic English, and often even people in the countryside speak very good English. So, if you are looking for directions or the right bus, just ask. Everybody is happy to help! This method of finding your way is hence called the “Filipino GPS”.

Now, sometimes, someone will not quite understand what you are asking, but tell you to go in this or that direction anyway. You might want to ask a 2nd person if you are not sure, but maybe not the guy right next to the 1st guy you asked: aaaawkward! Also, if you are looking for a bus, maybe ask the guy with the bus line uniform. Common sense!

Look left and right. No one will stop for a pedestrian around here. They might be texting while riding their moped! Construction sites might not be fenced off. Stray-dogs might sleep on the roadside. Don’t daydream while walking around.

Don’t be that backpacker. Quite frequently I see backpacker-types traveling in the Philippines who seem to have elevated stingyness to an ideology. For them, traveling cheaply is a proof that they are different, individualist travelers, and not mass-tourists. In fact, it’s just proof that they have their priorities all messed up. You don’t need to travel expensively, but there is no point in trying to save at all costs.

In a typical example, sometime last year in Palawan I observed a Euro kid wearing pricey high-end outdoor gear walk into a Filipino eatery, and ask about the price of a meal. The dishes in these eateries go for about 50-70 Pesos, a bit more than a Euro. This is less than a quarter of the price of a typical kebab in a European city. The guy certainly could afford a kebab, since he could afford the expensive long-distance flight to the Philippines! But, the 70 pesos for the chicken curry seemed to much for him, and he left the eatery with a concerned face. He probably went on to ask about the price in all the other eateries in town, coming close to heat-stroke in the course of his walk from eatery to eatery. Everyone loses. For the sake of saving a fraction of a percent of what it cost him to get to Asia, he misses out on a nice lunch. It’s irrational. Don’t be that Euro-backpacker!

More Philippine travel tips are found in:

If you don’t speak German: An English language edition of the books is in the works!