7 things they did not tell you about traveling to the Philippines
The natural beauty of the Philippines attracts many tourists. Especially for backpackers, the country has a lot to offer. But the downsides of mass tourism are obvious. So now it’s my time to write the “it’s not all pretty beaches and palm trees” piece. If you are planning your first visit to the Philippines, be prepared for the following things:
Don’t expect western standards
There is some infrastructure but it’s not like what you are used to from home. Drinking water comes in bottles. You cannot drink tap water. Many places offer filtered water, so you can refill your own bottle. But often you will be left with having to buy plastic bottles.
There are not many roads, so be prepared for bumpy rides. Even to some very popular tourist attractions (Nacpan beach for example) you’ll be riding on dirt paths. This also means getting places takes a lot longer. Naturally some islands are easier to get around on than others. Grab, the Uber like app of south east Asia, I found almost useless in the Phillippines.
There is trash everywhere. It made me quite sad actually. With the amount of tourists visiting and the trash they generate, plus the locals, it must be hard to keep up. Many places I saw people just lighting the trash of the day on fire. But there is a lot of it just laying around.
You cannot take hot running water in showers for granted. It is something hostels will advertise if they have it. One of the home stays I did, the hostess saw me heading to the shower and said “oh, will you take a hot shower? Hang on, let me turn on the water heater” and when I was done she turned it back off.
Cash is king
I have been to villages in the Philippines where the few existing ATM don’t work. Banks don’t necessarily have ATMs. If you find one, they charge exorbitant fees, like in most countries when you use a foreign card. And cards not widely accepted. Most places accept cash only, and you don’t always get a receipt. One hostel I stayed in wanted cash only but didn’t have change. Also make sure to count the change you get.
You lose a lot of time in transit
Traffic is intense, especially in the cities. Even short distances take a long time. The roads I described above, so it comes as no surprise you cannot move fast on them. So cross country takes a long time, too. And the roads are dominated by tricycles and scooters. Many people ride without helmets.
I am used to being charged tourist prices when traveling to Asia. Negotiating is common in many places. But in Puerto Princesa it was taken to a new extreme when tricycle drivers asked for roughly ten times what the price list in their own tricycle said they charge.
Sustainability is not as big of a deal yet
Exploitation of natural resources is shockingly common. There are so many reefs in the Philippines with beautiful fish, corals, turtles etc. And so many places you see boats anchoring in corals. Nowhere was I given a briefing when renting snorkeling equipment or going on tours about dos and don’ts to protect the reefs.
One of the saddest moments was on a tour, when we saw a turtle. The guides of 4 or 5 boats sent their clients in the water with snorkels to swim with the turtle. Not one asked to keep a respectful distance from the wild animal. There also is a lot of plastic in circulation. Eventually, all that garbage on the islands will end up in the ocean.
Cell phone and wifi coverage patchy
Even though I bought a local SIM card, some places I struggled with connectivity. In restaurants or hostels we often heard that Wifi hasn’t been working “since last week”. One waiter had a Freudian slip and said “since last year” then came back and corrected himself to “last week” It’s not even about cities vs rural areas. In Cebu City I had no coverage at times while during island hopping tours I was connecting off shore. Either way, tell your loved ones not to worry if they don’t hear from you for a few days. You may be off grid.
Locals are fascinated with white skin
Talking to locals in the Philippines I noticed how fascinated they are by white skin. Sometimes, random people asked me to take selfies with them. Like when I asked for directions. But it is much more than just taking selfies with tourists. There is an entire beauty industry around skin whitening. I have even seen a skin whitening salon in a shopping mall.
Despite all of this, it is a beautiful country with beautiful beaches and people. When you go, go with an open heart. Just be prepared 🙂