The Philippines: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Photos from the Road: Bantayan Island Beach and Ocean
April 19, 2013
Snorkeling and Diving on Malapascua Island
April 27, 2013

The Philippines: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Good

The Places

The Philippines has some incredible destinations. I’ll start with the phenomenal rice terraces of Banaue and Batad, high in the Cordillara Mountains of Luzon. For three days, I trekked among what I consider one of the grandest human construction achievements on earth. It is worth flying to the Philippines to see these alone. I also heard many great things about the remote island of Palawan, with its famed Underground River. The beaches and diving off the islands of the Visayas are some of the world’s best. Personally, I liked the little mountain getaway town of Sagada and the colonial city of Vigan. The beaches of Bantayan and Malapascua were my favorites.

the philippines

A view of the Batad Rice Terraces in the Philippines.

 

The People

Filipinos are friendly. They’re also very respectful and modest. (The same goes for Filipino expats and emigrants; they are consistently the friendliest and most upbeat people I’ve come across in my travels.) The Philippine Archipelago is made up of 7,000 islands stretching across more than a thousand kilometers. It was settled by Malays and before that was home to several indigenous groups. Over the centuries, the Chinese have had traded with peoples of the Philippines and there was great influence by Spanish and American colonial rule. All of these influences have created an interesting mix of inhabitants that still have diverse cultures, festivals, cuisines, as well as speaking at least 150 different languages.

riding a calesa horse drawn cart (6)

Riding a horse carriage through the old streets of Vigan.

 

English

English is the means by which Filipinos from different parts of the country communicate with one another. It is also the language of formal education. This is good for travelers—not because I think everyone should know English—but because it allows the traveler to have more meaningful interactions with Filipinos. I was able to chat with the old guy on the bus, talk to the kid on the beach collecting seashells, and learn about processing rice by hand from a woman in a rural village. And no doubt, it just makes getting information about a hotel room, or your next bus or ferry, a lot easier.

the philippines

An example of good, freshly prepared, whole food in the Philippines.

 

The Food

This is both a good and a bad. Filipino cuisine, in theory, is quite good and I had several nice meals and tasted as wide a variety of food as I could: from common dishes like barbecue chicken and pork adobo to more exotic foods like kare-kare and sisig to comfort foods like batchoy and pancit. But…it is challenging to find good quality and well-prepared food. Processed meats in tins are quite common and an outrageous amount of salt is typically used. When I could find fresh meat and fish, it was tasty, but much of the time this proved difficult.

 

The Bad

Choose your Destinations Wisely

Remember I said that the Philippines had some incredible destinations? Well, it also has some incredibly uninteresting destinations as well: cities with heavy traffic and dirty air which are of little interest to travelers. Transportation is also slow and difficult. The fact that the Philippines is a country consisting of islands makes transportation infrastructure challenging. Read ahead about the places you want to visit and how to maximize your time there, while minimizing your time elsewhere.

Not a great Value

When comparing the Philippines to its Southeast Asian neighbors, it’s a little more expensive. The Philippines is just not a great value overall. Things might seem cheap if you’re coming from the west; but you get what you pay for. Most accommodation and food is poor quality unless you spend a lot of money. Ground transportation overall is a good value, however, making a several-hours trip only costs a few dollars. For a closer look at expenses, read my article: What it Costs: A Day of Travel in the Philippines

Visa

The good news is: you get a 21-day visa for free on arrival. More good news is that visa renewal is a relatively easy process at any provincial office. The bad news is: it’s expensive. I paid $75 to get an additional seven days. Part of this was bad planning on my part; I should have only stayed 21 days. That’s what I recommend to you: limit your travels in the Philippines to less to 21 days or less.

 

The Ugly

Diesel Exhaust

I can sum up the ugliness of the Philippines in two words: diesel exhaust. It’s my least favorite part about the country. Transportation, by and large, is in the form of jeepneys (a combo of share taxi and bus), each of which constantly belch out dark, smelly clouds of exhaust. During the time I spent in urban areas (which I tried to minimize), I held a handkerchief up to my mouth to ease the breathing (like many others did).

jeepney traffic

A smoke-belching jeepney in Manila traffic.

 

Crime

First, I’ll say that I took above-average precaution and had zero issues with crime. I think the Philippines is safer than everyone says it is…but I may be wrong. There are armed guards outside nearly every business (including fast food restaurants!). Filipinos are the first ones to tell you how dangerous their country is. They’re the ones with their backpacks on their front side. As a traveler, I would be aware of the issue, but no need to be paranoid and don’t let safety prevent you from visiting the Philippines.

philippines security

A security guards stands watch at a beach resort in the Philippines.

 

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Stephen Bugno
Stephen Bugno
Stephen Bugno has been traveling the world and writing about it for the better part of 20 years. His articles and essays have appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Seattle Times, and Transitions Abroad magazine. He blogs at Bohemian Traveler and edits the independent travel magazine GoMadNomad.com. He most recently set up a tour company offering authentic, small group tours at Unquote Travel. Follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

16 Comments

  1. Stephen Bugno says:

    Hannah, just remember to stay 21 days or less (because of the visa)!

  2. Angela says:

    We’re still contemplating if we should go to the Philippines or not. I think it will be fun, but I’m not sure if it’s worth it.

  3. Thanks for your honest take on my country. The Jeepney is really the cheapest and most convenient way for us to move around. The pollution and humid weather doesn’t help ease the condition (factors why I don’t like commuting in big cities like Metro Manila.. but i have to.). For foreigners, I guess it is really better to plan out and choose your destinations wisely especially if you’re exploring the place for 21 days or a month. I guess that is the reason why majority go to Banaue-Sagada-Batad and explore Palawan.

    But I am more happy with your feedback about the Filipinos. Too bad I wasn’t able to meet you and Juno. Maybe soon 😀

  4. We cant wait to go to the Philippines on our upcoming RTW. One of my current co-workers is from there and would love to visit!

  5. Chris says:

    It can be a confusing and sometimes frustrating country, but I think it rewards a longer stay than 21 days. I spent a few months there about 5 years ago and found it contradictory, beautiful, random and multilayered. Some of my thoughts are in the following post from my tongue-in-cheek ‘existential traveller’ blog:
    http://existentialvacation.blogspot.hk/2008/04/tao-of-engelbert-humperdink.html

  6. Stephen Bugno says:

    Hi Bern, Thanks for your insight! I think I wanted to like the Philippines more just because I keep running into so many friendly Filipinos around the world. But being in the urban areas were mostly painful…

  7. Stephen Bugno says:

    Thanks for adding this, Chris. I definitely respect your extended stay in the Philippines and glad to hear it was rewarding for you.

  8. Bern says:

    I spent the first eleven yrs of my life in AngelesCity before moving to the US in ’69. Too young to recall the good old days, I’ve gone back four times since and from my westernized perspective, my observations would skew heavily towards Eli Wallach (he was “ugly” in the movie: The Good, Bad, & the Ugly). Last back in 2005, I meant to stay away from urban jungles but having families in Quezon and Angeles, it was unavoidable. The traffic in those urban areas rival the worst rush hour gridlock in Seoul, Jakarta, Kabul, DC, and Oahu just to name a few. I feel your diesel fumes pain. On the plus side, the food is definitely money! The influences of regional cuisines from The Med, Northern Africa, China, Malaysia, etc… collide nicely across the island provinces. Thx for the post.

  9. Stephen Bugno says:

    Hi Jill, I was only on Luzon, in the north and in the Visayas in the central portion of the Philippines.

  10. jill says:

    It’s good to know that it’s a tad more expensive than its neighbors. I’d still like to visit though – especially the southern islands. Did you travel much in that region of the country?

  11. Headed to the Philippines in 2 weeks, I have head many of these same things about the country. We are planning to stick with the area North of Manila, check out Manila a little, Boracay, Cebu and Palawan during our visit. The 21 days is great advice, we are so torn, but it is really better to just keep it under the free day allowance! 🙂

  12. inee says:

    Wanted to throw some clarification:

    Yes, the smog is really bad. They need to modernize the transportation regulations but they’re about 10 years away from that, maybe 20. You have to remember that this is a third world country. And judge it for third world country metrics– which would mean that the Philippines is one of the top if not the top. In the 60s the country used to be the top country in asia. Sadly a long history of corruption and poverty railroaded many programs designed to advance the country throughout the modernization decades. Now the country is behind some 20-30 years.

    If you’re going to the capital, just like any other place, you need to know where AND WHEN to go and what you’re doing there. Of that follows that then you need to know HOW to get to the places you want to go– this is no different than any other country. In the Philippines’ capital you need to know that there is Los Angeles type traffic (probably worse) during work days. If you want to be in the capital you need to stay in a hotel near the places you visit, or commute during the early hours of the morning. Late night travel wouldnt work as it is still traffic until 8pm (like LA). WHen in the capital you should go see their massive malls. And also historic places like Spanish colonial forts and houses. Then there’s HOLY WEEK, which you should definitely be there to witness processions and live nailings on the cross.

    In the provinces there are many “fiestas”/festivals that you should check out. There are great beaches, scuba spots, waterfalls, hiking locations, and jungles/forests with exotic animals. Again, a matter of WHEN to go there.

    To escape the smog, use a taxi cab and/or rent a car. Many buses are also airconditioned. Use the railways before rush hour. No different than Japan.

    The capital also is home to many great nightclubs and bars. Definitely worth checking out. There are also great amusement parks and roller coaster rides— some which I couldnt find in Six Flags or Disney or Knotts.

    The Philippines is also home to some of the best water parks, boat rides, island hopping, and adventure trails.

    Again, KNOW where, when, and what to do first.

    Crime– the people rarely or almost never target foreigners. It is mostly their own Filipino people they steal from. So don’t need to worry about security. The only exception is the south– Mindanao– which I would stay away from due to the presence of the rebels, ISIS, and Al Quaeda. They have been known to kidnap foreigners (including missionaries like priests and nuns and journalists) and ask for ransom and/or kill them for propaganda.

  13. Ian Martin says:

    You get 30 days now on entry at immigration.

  14. Stephen Bugno says:

    Thanks for the update, Ian!

  15. Robby Rose says:

    My favorite place is Mindanao. Everyone speaks of the dangers there but more to worry about in Manila in my opinon . Davao for one is very safe and exceptionally clean with a lot to do there. General Santos as well. You will find yourself enjoying extremely friendly conversation and will feel like royalty . Just be humble and enjoy the beauty of the beaches and experience their culture. Enjoy your free 30 days after its 3,500 pesos for 15 additional days. Or after 30 fly to Malayasia for a day then come back the next and start fresh another 30 days .

  16. barnadin says:

    what will happen if I go to Philippine and meet my soul mate and get married suddenly ? will they kick me out of their country?
    pardon me if my English is very bad.

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