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.
In the Philippines, community is everything. The term bayanihan describes how people work together to uplift their fellow kabayans (countrymen). And this isn’t just in times of crisis: in the past, whole villages would help a family relocate their nipa hut (lifting them using bamboo poles).
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.
The humble jeepney is a Philippine icon: WW2-era Japanese cargo trucks, repurposed into colourful passenger vehicles. You’ll find these chugging along everywhere, ferrying locals as the country’s most common mode of public transportation.
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!
Things in the Philippines run on a more relaxed schedule; otherwise known as ‘island time’, or ‘Filipino time’. So travellers should be flexible and agile in arranging trips – expect delays in transport schedules, especially in remote areas.
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?
The Philippines carries a deep respect for older generations: the longer you’ve lived, the more you’ve experienced – and that deserves recognition. This is honoured with a traditional gesture known as mano po.
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.
Like other Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines has clamped down on waste imports in recent years; famously sending over 1,500 tonnes of rubbish back to Canada in 2019.
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.
If you plan on surviving the Philippines on a staple diet of chicken and rice, you’re sorely missing out. Uniquely sweet, salty and sour, Filipino food is as diverse as the 7,000 islands that make up the archipelago.
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.
Shot na! Filipinos love a good drink, which is reflected in a vibrant drinking culture. Weekends see punters pack videoke halls, glitzy bars, and fiestas, revelling well into the night with their pulutan (drinking snacks).
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.
The Philippines has a reputation for its friendly local attitudes - the tourism tagline ‘It’s more fun in the Philippines’ isn’t for nothing! However, there are a few things to keep in mind if you ever find yourself in someone’s hospitable care.
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.
Cheap costs make the Philippines a great destination for budget travellers, but always make sure to carry extra cash in case you run into surprises. These include pesky Airport Terminal Fees that can set you back up to 750 pesos (£11) for international flights (and usually between 150-250 pesos for domestic travel).
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.
In the Philippines, karaoke is more than just a way to unwind: it’s a community ritual. Love ballads are a popular choice, and these are sung without a hint of irony - even in the rowdiest groups, a person’s turn to take the mic is treated with a keen respect. If you find yourself next to a karaoke machine, keep this in mind and don’t be shy to give it a go!
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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