The quantity of food is typical, but we have plenty of other dishes out there.
Foreigners I’ve met list the same few reasons for heading on over to the Philippines: amazing beaches; relatively low cost of travel; deliciously sinful and artery-hardening food; inexpensive liquor; and friendly people who can speak English.
All the above combine to make the Philippines an attractive destination for backpackers other travelers who manage their own itineraries. I’ve met American, French, Indonesian, Korean, Singaporean, Israeli and Australian travelers who’ve arranged their own travels. Locals, particularly the young and single, do the same. After all, it should be perfectly safe to travel around this friendly island nation of friendly people, right?
Wrong. Like any other country, the Philippines has its own unique identity. There are some practices that you should observe to make your stay go much more smoothly.
Do’s in the Philippines
- Do your research beforehand
The Philippines is an archipelago, and for those used to living on the mainland, that means travel between islands can be difficult. Philippine boats aren’t always safe, and while inexpensive flights are available, they still cost much more than land travel would.
It’s important to do your research then. It’s not easy to hit multiple islands on one trip to the Philippines. Instead, pick two or three that you’d like to visit and plan on soaking up the culture in these spots. Pick a city as a base, and spend the next three or four days exploring the area around it, before moving on. Often, there will be nearby cities that you can move on to.
For example, you could use Baguio City as a base for the Cordillera Mountains. The City of Pines is known as the Summer Capital of the Philippines for its cool weather (by Philippine standards) and its relative urbanization. From there, it’s a six-hour trip to Sagada, known for maintaining its pre-Spanish culture. Sagada boasts unique hanging coffins, an extensive cave network, and magnificent sunrises wreathed in clouds. Excellent food and inexpensive, homey lodging are bonuses. From there, it’s another 3 hours to the Ifugao Rice Terraces, which are touted as the 8th Wonder of the World.
For another example, take the Visayas group of islands. The Visayas covers about 24,00 square miles, which is like 12 Californias lumped together – except California has an excellent highway system, while travel in the Visayas is mostly by fragile wooden boat. Luckily, the Visayas is split up into smaller regions. Cebu City, for example, provides enough fun to easily last 2 or 3 days; and when you’re done, Bohol (worth another three days) is just an hour’s flight away. Or you could start from Bacolod City (famous for its chicken inasal, a type of barbecued chicken), take a one hour boat to Iloilo City to sample the inexpensive and delicious seafood, then take another 15-minute boat ride to Guimaras for its delectable mangoes. If you own a boat then you need a folding bicycle to save space while sailing.
You really can’t cover the entire Philippines in a month. And why would you want to, when you can savor it section by section?
- Use honorifics and familial terms
It may seem surprising, but the people we Filipinos address as “Sir” and “Ma’am” in the workplace are also often our drinking buddies. Filipinos place high regard on titles of respect, and it is considered rude to address anyone older, or with a higher rank, by just their first name. Yet, besides the honorifics, we can be surprisingly casual once we’re comfortable with one another. Superiors and elders often join in on some tame shenanigans.
For safety’s sake, use “Tita” (Aunt), “Tito” (Uncle), “Kuya” (older brother) and “Ate” (older sister) when you address anyone who seems older than you. When in doubt about a person’s age, it is better to be safe than sorry – it’s not like anyone will check your own age anyway. This holds true for taxi drivers, waitresses, and even the lady selling candy on the streets. This also applies for the rather sizable Chinese-Filipino community in and around the capital, though I recommend using “Auntie” and “Uncle” instead for the older ones.
Adding in a “po” after will gain you some smiles too. For example, “Hello po Tita, do you sell any phone cards?” will usually have the nice lady give you much better service.
- Have some humility
Filipinos are an odd sort. We dislike arrogance and pretention; just look at what happened to Youtube sensation Christopher Lao, who became famous for trying to drive through a flooded street. After he was rescued he launched into an irritated rant about his not being informed about the floods.
Now, whatever your opinion on this (personally, I believe we should give him a pass for being in a frustrating position), the fact is a lot of people found his rant incredibly arrogant. Facebook groups sprang up ridiculing him and his actions.
Filipinos love making fun of one another, and it is normal for friends to engage in verbal sparring until one side gives. But it is also poor form to lose your temper and not accept your own faults. In a “fun” word war, the proper “attack” is to hit your opponent’s faults instead of vehemently defending your own. A sense of humor and humility will help you get along well with the locals.
- Look up your local friends
Filipinos are a hospitable people. If you’ve kept in touch with any local acquaintances and let them know you’re coming, they’ll do everything they can to help you. They probably won’t let you crash on their couch (Filipino homes are sacred places), they will happily help you find hotels, drive you around town, treat you to meals and play tour guide for you. Filipinos love company, and most of us have enough national pride to want to show our guests the best we have.
Never impose, though. Filipinos usually prefer to offer to help instead of feeling like they are obligated to. Ask for help in planning your itinerary, and graciously accept whatever is offered. It is considered fairly rude to refuse unless you have other appointments to keep. If you feel shy or uncomfortable, decline graciously with a profuse thank you and say that you have to head somewhere else.
- Keep an open mind
There are tons of other practices, beliefs and habits comprising Filipino culture that this post does not have the space to tackle. To name some, we have the infamous Filipino time; Filipino religious and superstitious beliefs; our preference for being indirect with people in order to be polite; extreme hospitality; respect for elders; very close family ties; and so on.
We know that some of these beliefs are impractical; yet, they are still ours. We would not like it if foreigners came and rudely disrespected them, as we also try to respect the practices of others when we go abroad.
Also, as a traveler, you won’t be able to change our entire way of thinking by yourself. Instead of fighting against this current of Filipino identity, why not embrace it? After all, part of the fun of traveling is really immersing yourself in a foreign culture and getting to know the people and way of life. It would be a shame to come here just for the sights.
Keep an open mind; who knows what you might learn? You might even find some of these worthy of adapting into your own life.
Don’ts in the Philippines
- Go on a diet
Filipino food is an experience, for sure. We put sugar and condensed milk in our spaghetti; we eat deep-fried finer food with our beer; and each of our regions has its own specialties. Our cuisine is also unique with its myriad of influences. Eating in the Philippines means getting used to bold, sweet flavors and rich sauces – KFC is big over here because of its gravy, which people pour over rice and drown their chicken in. McDonald’s still has a hard time dominating over local fast food chain Jollibee, with its Filipino-style taste.
My other blog post on things to do in Manila will expound on this more. To further whet your appetites, I point you to the section on regional cuisine – yes, virtually every region has its own specialty. Some of these dishes may have diffused around the archipelago, but the sisig in Pampanga may be different from the sisig in Manila. Regional nuances are quite strong. Eating in the Philippines means a never-ending journey of discovery.
- Display wealth
Friendly though we may be, there are still numerous scams in the Philippines. Pickpockets, muggers, “taxi” drivers who rob their passengers, and even the occasional kidnapping do happen. Fortunately, a little common sense will keep you safe.
- Walk at a steady pace
- Keep your bags close to your body and in front of you
- Do not bring out cellphones or IPods while walking
- Put your wallet in your front pocket
- Lock your door while asleep or out for the day
- Walk in groups at night
- Always keep someone informed of your whereabouts
- Avoid confrontation
Filipinos are friendly, and many do want to make an honest living. But even if you believe in the natural goodness of human beings… just don’t toss in any temptation.
- Just stick to the “popular” spots
A lot of tourists head for the popular destinations like Boracay, Baguio City, Tagaytay and Cebu, lounge around for a week or two and then head home happy and contented. Yet, that is the problem with these spots for some: they’re too popular. Some travelers prefer relative solitude, and a chance to get off the beaten path.
Boracay has fine beaches, to be sure. But if you were given the chance to head for a place with beaches almost as beautiful and with less than a fourth of the people present in Boracay, would you go?
Some of the remarkable places I’ve been to:
- Bantayan Island, Cebu
- Nagsasa Cove, Zambales
- Pagudpud, Ilocos Norte
- Bantayan Island
- Nagsasa, Zambales
- Pagudpud, Ilocos
- Boracay Island
- El Nido, Palawan
- Tali, Batangas
- Caramoan, Camarines Sur
- Panglao Island
You don’t need a lot of money or a lot of time to head there. For example, Nagsasa Cove is easily about 3 hours away from Manila. And even though I covered all my own expenses for Nagsasa Cove, I only spent about Php 1,200 (around 24 USD!) all in all. Pagudpud is just about a couple of hours away from Laoag, the capital of Ilocos Norte, while Bantayan Island is roughly a four hour trip from Cebu City. A bit too long for a normal weekend, but come on, you wouldn’t head to Bantayan Island and just stay for a night would you?
- Be aloof with acquaintances
I’ve known some foreigners, and even some Filipinos of foreign descent, who are surprised by the common Filipino greeting of “Kumain ka na ba?” or “Have you eaten?” I used to always wonder why people are so concerned about my diet, but I soon realized this is the equivalent of a friendly “How are you?”
Small talk in the Philippines is funny. We rarely talk to strangers, or to anyone we do not need to; many of us are surprised by the American practice of chatting up people in a long line or greeting neighbors we don’t really know. On the other hand, when we do make small talk with acquaintances or people we’re introduced to, we like to get to know the person. It is considered polite to ask about the other party’s family, job or school. Asking about these shows that you value that person; you want to get to know them better, and you wish them well.
It’s also not uncommon for an acquaintance to introduce you to his or her barkada, which is basically their little “group”, much like the main cast of Friends. Often, they’ll invite you to tag along to dinner, a movie, or a drinking session, especially if you’re all by your lonesome.
On one hand, I know some foreign cultures consider it intrusive. On the other hand, it is also very sincere, in the sense that we only do this with people we actually would care to befriend. It doesn’t mean that we’re close friends already, or that we definitely will be, or that we’ll even invite you to our future birthday parties or weddings. It does mean that, as of the moment, we’re opening the door to you.
Doesn’t that make it much easier to make new friends?
- Be in a rush
The tropical climate of the Philippines lends itself to a relaxed, laid-back atmosphere in the islands. Our national hero Jose Rizal even said so in his essay, The Indolence of the Filipinos. The heat and humidity in these lovely islands can be oppressive even when it rains, and even a short stroll in direct silent can be tiring.
Even the Spaniards who conquered us found themselves becoming more relaxed. There’s the concept of merienda, a simple afternoon snack between lunch and dinner roughly equivalent to the British afternoon tea, although merienda may take a bit longer.
When the weather is cool and there is a light rain outside, we often turn to each other and comment on how nice it would be to just sleep in. Filipino gatherings often start with some small talk between parties. Important matters are often discussed over relaxed meals; and people can often be up to 15 minutes late to appointments without really incurring any loss of social capital. I know many people who actually pencil in a 15 minute allowance in their schedules just because it is so common!
Now, we Filipinos can be very hardworking. It’s just that we do like to relax a bit when Rizal’s essay gave many reasons for this laid-back attitude, but that is really beyond the scope of this post to discuss. The main point here is, if you’re going to be in the Philippines, take some time off. There is little point in rushing around while you’re on vacation; leave that to the workforce. Part of the Philippine experience is plopping down in a café with a coffee or beer, with some reading material or a couple of close friends, and just lazing the afternoon away. Whether you’ll be going to work the next day, or embarking on the next leg of your Philippine adventure, you’ll definitely appreciate the recharge.