It’s more fun in the Philippines…… the official tag line of the Department of Tourism for the Philippines. And they are right. There is just so much to see and do in this often neglected corner of South East Asia that it is impossible to cram even a fraction into most holidays. We will focus on some of the easier places to see, but are only too conscious that we are simply scratching the surface of this amazing and welcoming country.
Visitors will almost certainly arrive in Manila, the location for the Thriller in Manila, the second fight between Ali and Frazier. Even the official website describes Manila as “a dense stew of urban development and historic sentiment”. Hardly a ringing endorsement, but still work spending a few days here.
Manila has the reputation of the worst traffic in the world. It’s perhaps unfair, but to be expected in a city with one of the biggest populations and no underground train/metro/subway. But there are other means of transport, including the colourful, customised jeepneys and public transport will seem incredibly cheap to Westerners used to paying for their more civilised systems.
Quite apart from the hustle and bustle, there is still a UNESCO world heritage site here, the San Agustin Church in the Intramuros, one of the best preserved medieval forts outside Europe.
If staying in Manila, an excellent day trip outside the city is to the Taal Volcano a couple of hours bus ride away. Taal has an island within a lake, that is on an island within a lake, that is on an island. Confusing? Yes, but incredible to visit.
Of course, the Philippines is best known for its beaches and Islands. There are over 7000 islands, of which Boracay and Palawan are regularly voted the most beautiful in the world. For me, Palawan wins hands down because of its diversity, gorgeous beaches, stunning cliffs, an underwater cave and some of the best diving in the world.
- Boracay is perhaps becoming a victim of its own success, as over development threatens the idyllic nature of the island, pushing up prices, but still remains a fabulous place to sit and do nothing.
- Palawan is about an hour and a half away by plane from Manila, and has two airports, the principal one in Puerto Princessa and a second in El Nido. Palawan has an extraordinary underground river, another UNESCO site, as well as some of the best diving in the world. Crystal clear seas cover barracuda infested shipwrecks and a host of marine life.
- Bohol: About an hour’s flight from Manila and home to the amazing Tarsier and chocolate hills of Bohol. The Tarsier is a small mammal with enormous eyes, and are mainly nocturnal. They are very nervous so would probably have joined the ranks of extinct animals had a sanctuary not been established to preserve them. The Chocolate Hills are bizarre hills, shaped and coloured like chocolate (although not like chocolate as I know chocolate!) and are best visited by hiring a go cart type vehicle. The beaches in Bohol are probably no better than fine, with the best in Panglao Island. I often hear criticism of the cuisine in the Philippines compared to other South East Asian countries, but I would have to say that the best squid I have ever eaten, by far, came from a restaurant near Alona Beach.
- Cebu was the first Spanish Settlement in the Philippines and therefore is a mix of history, culture and modern living. This is another busy city, with its own vibe, but not far from the hotels, casinos, shopping malls etc, are still pristine beaches with an abundance of wildlife waiting to be discovered. Cebu is also the home of the Lechon, the famous whole roasted pig, with its crispy skin and delicious meat.
Our ideal itinerary in the Philippines would be a few days in Manila, and then to head off to one of the islands for some well deserved rest and relaxation, plus taking in some of the extraordinary sites. It is a great place to learn how to dive, as the seas are so clear, and there is so much to see under the water, almost as much as above.
The food is perhaps not as complex as Thai or Vietnamese but national dishes such as Adobo and Lechon are definitely worth trying. And no visit to the Philippines can miss some Lambanog, the Philippine spirit made from Coconut, and not for the faint hearted!
Apart from the beaches, there is plenty of activities to give the adrenalin junkies their fix with a huge range of water sports, motor sports, zip wires, and other near death experiences. The Philippines has a wide range of wildlife, from the incredible monkey eating eagles, through to the tiny Tarsier, and of course whale sharks and other marine life. When they say it’s more fun, they really mean it’s more fun. Come and enjoy it!