Travelling to the Philippines? Be prepared for an eye-opening experience. Much like the country’s national dessert halo-halo (meaning ‘mix-mix’), the Philippines’ influences have blended into a culture unlike anywhere else in Southeast Asia.
Here, centuries-old traditions of indigenous tribes mingle with deep-rooted Catholicism, Hispanic passion and American pop culture. Street food stalls sizzle under the shadows of skyscrapers. And no matter whether you’re far out in the provinces, or in trendy Manila, all of life’s problems seem to be solved with a karaoke session.
Born in Manila, our Philippines expert shares some unmissable insider tips for travelling in this enchanting archipelago.
Today, this manifests in neighbourly acts of kindness. Fixing your house? Thirsty after a long day of tuk tuk driving? Your kabayans have got your back.
As a traveller, it pays to heed how ‘bayanihan spirit’ will impact your trip. For example, if you’ve paid an entrance fee to an attraction, be aware that your guide’s tip is likely what makes up their salary; what you paid to get in is invested back into the community.
This of course doesn’t apply to bigger tour operators, which is why supporting smaller, independent businesses is a virtuous practice here.
It may seem daunting, but it’s a surefire way to save money (a single ride is around eight pesos, or 12 pence), and get a feel for local life.
To pay for your trip, you’ve got to rely on a little bayanihan spirit: pass your cash down the line of passengers to the driver (it’s best to pay the exact amount so they don’t have to multitask).
Getting to your destination is a little trickier: you won’t find any official schedules or maps, so your best bet is to get talking. Jeepney terminals usually have ‘barkers’ who guide people onto vehicles, otherwise just ask your fellow passengers – most Filipinos speak at least conversational English.
To stop, shout “para po!” (please stop), or pull the string along the roof to turn on the ‘stop light’. It may seem daunting at first, but trust the process!
If you find yourself waiting anywhere for too long, look up, enjoy the view, and ask yourself a simple question for some perspective: when else are you going to be sat on a lush tropical island?
When encountering an elderly person, Filipinos will bow their heads, gently take their elder’s hand and place it on their forehead.
If you find yourself visiting someone’s grandparents, make sure to do this and pay your respects (and if you’re lucky, you’ll get a big pinch on the cheek like my lola (grandmother) used to do).
More generally, people use the term po at the end of sentences when addressing those in more senior positions. This includes elderly folk, but also applies to bosses, parents, relatives; you’ll also notice service people will use it when talking to customers.
If you’re flexing your Tagalog skills, suffix your phrases with ‘po’ for extra street cred.
The region has historically been a dumping ground for the Global North, resulting in mountains of rubbish that endanger wildlife and local communities.
If you’re going to more remote areas you’ll need to travel smart. Bring an extra bag for your trash, especially if visiting beaches that may not have waste bins.
Don’t take or buy seashells: they actually provide homes and food for marine life, and help filter out pollution in seawater.
And when you’re done with your beer bottles, keep an eye out for local bottle collectors who get paid to deliver these to recycling centres.
When in Cebu, make a beeline for the lechon kawali at Leslie’s Lechon: slow, spit roasted pork with golden crispy skin. If you find yourself in Angeles City, Pampanga, try the famous sisig at Aling Lucing Sisig (it’s where the dish was invented, and was made famous in Anthony Bourdain’s Explore Parts Unknown): pork cheek and liver seasoned with calamansi, served on a fiery, sizzling platter.
And while in Manila, take the opportunity to try sinigang at Corazon: a fresh, zesty stew of fish and vegetables, soured by tomatoes or tamarind.
A few notes on eating etiquette: Filipinos typically eat with a fork and spoon (all the better to scoop up that rice with), but will sometimes use their hands to really mix flavours together. Most restaurants provide hand wipes for just this reason, so don’t be afraid to get stuck in.
The booze here packs a punch, with staple beer Red Horse standing at 8% ABV. If there’s one drink to keep an eye on it’s Tanduay Rum: an intoxicating blend that sears your throat but goes down a little too easily with coca-cola.
There really isn’t a word-for-word equivalent of ‘cheers’ in the Philippines. Most clink their glasses to a simple ‘chug’, or ‘shot’, or even the Japanese ‘kanpai’ (a taste of the national love for all things J and K-pop).
But when it comes to the drinking, things get uniquely Filipino. If you find yourself with a local group, someone acts as the tangerro: a person designated to pour drinks.
One by one, everyone takes a shot from the same glass in a custom known as ‘tagay’. By sharing this glass, bonds grow closer and the world is put to rights.
If a local invites you out for a meal, they may feel obliged to pay for your share. So if you want to split the bill, make this explicit before you meet up.
Conversely, you may be expected to cover costs if you’ve extended the invitation (and if you’re out celebrating your birthday, people will assume you’re paying for everyone - which can get expensive real quick, take it from me).
If you’ve crossed someone, they may not make it obvious. ‘Saving face’ culture is big in the Philippines, where some people avoid blunt honesty if it means dodging confrontation or embarrassment. So if you can tell something’s off, take the initiative to apologise and remove that burden from them.
Luckily in Manila and Boracay this is included in your plane ticket price. However, if you’re transferring from the likes of Cebu or Iloilo you’ll need to fork out cash (and we mean cash literally – there’s no option to pay by card).
Also watch out for ATM charges when taking money out. You’ll find the best rates when withdrawing from BDI, BPO or Metrobank cash points. It pays to take out a decent amount to avoid repeat ATM visits, with 10,000 pesos (£150) enough to last you a few comfortable days.
You’ll find karaoke in every barangay (neighbourhood) across the country, so take the opportunity to get involved in the nation’s favourite pastime.
This article is brought you in partnership with the Philippines Department of Tourism.
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