In the Philippines it is common to give an address as, for example, 122 Legaspi corner Velasco Streets, meaning the junction of Legaspi and Velasco streets (in the Guide this is written “122 Legaspi St at Velasco St”). G/F denotes street level, after which come 2/F, 3/F and so on; “first floor” or 1/F isn’t used. Some addresses include the name of a barangay, which is officially an electoral division for local elections, but is generally used to mean a village or, when mentioned in connection with a town, a neighbourhood or suburb. The word barangay isn’t always written out in the address, although it’s sometimes included in official correspondence and signposts, often abbreviated to “Brgy” or “Bgy”. The term “National Highway” in an address doesn’t necessarily refer to a vast motorway – on the smaller islands or in provincial areas, it could mean the coastal road or the main street in town. When it comes to islands, Filipinos generally talk loosely in terms of the main island in the vicinity – so, for example, they would talk about visiting Panay when they actually mean offshore Pan de Azucar. We’ve adopted a similar approach in parts of the Guide, implicitly including small islands in coverage of the nearest large island.
While upmarket resorts in the Philippines can be as expensive as anywhere else in the world, for anyone with modest spending habits and tastes the country is inexpensive. Outside of Metro Manila you can get by on a frugal budget of around P1000 per person (£13.50/US$22/€16) a day, but you might need to avoid the most popular tourist destinations such as Boracay (or visit during the off-season), and you’ll be limited to bare-bones cottages and pokey rooms in basic hotels, usually without air conditioning or hot water. On this budget you’d also have to confine your meals to local restaurants and carinderias, with little leeway for slap-up feasts in nice restaurants. You’d also have to plan any flights carefully, only buying the very cheapest tickets online or limiting yourself to buses and ferries.
A budget of P2000 (£27/US$44/€32) a day will take your standard of living up a few notches, allowing you to find reasonable beach cottage and hotel rooms and have enough left for modest eating out, drinking and budget flights. On P3800 (£51/US$84/€62) a day, you can afford to stay in solid, reasonably spacious cottages on the beach, usually with a veranda and air conditioning, and have plenty left over for domestic flights and good meals in local restaurants.
Crime and personal safety
The Philippines has a reputation as a somewhat dangerous place to travel (at least in the US and UK), but if you exercise discretion and common sense this really isn’t the case. Politically the Philippines is a volatile place, with secessionist movements present in Mindanao and communist guerrillas active in a number of areas. Insurgency rarely has an impact on tourists, but you should avoid trouble spots. Updated travel advisories are available on foreign office or state department websites including state.gov in the US and fco.gov.uk in the UK.
There are occasional reports of thieves holding up vehicles at traffic lights and removing mobiles and cash from passengers. If you’re in a taxi, keep the windows closed and the doors locked, just to be safe. In the Malate area of Manila and Angeles City, the so-called Ativan Gang has used the drug Lorazepam (Ativan is one of its proprietary names) to make their victims drowsy or put them to sleep – it’s best to be on your guard in these areas if you’re approached by people who seem unusually keen to offer you assistance, especially in bars.
Drug laws in the Philippines are stringent and the police are enthusiastic about catching offenders. No one, foreigner or otherwise, caught in possession of hard or recreational drugs is likely to get much sympathy from the authorities. Carrying 500 grams or more of marijuana is deemed to be trafficking and carries the death penalty, while a lesser amount will usually result in a prison sentence.
The 24-hour emergency number throughout the Philippines is 0117.
Visitors are allowed to bring in four hundred cigarettes (or fifty cigars or 250g of pipe tobacco) and two bottles of wine and spirits not exceeding one litre each. If you arrive with more than US$10,000 in cash (unlikely) you are meant to declare it, and you won’t be allowed to take out more than this sum in foreign currency on leaving. Note that not more than P10,000 in local currency may be taken out of the country, though this is rarely, if ever, enforced.
Wall sockets in the Philippines usually operate at 220 volts (similar to Australia, Europe and most of Asia), although you may come across 110 volts in some rural areas – it’s best to ask before plugging in appliances. Most mobile phones, cameras, MP3 players and laptops are dual voltage (older hair-dryers are the biggest problem for North American travellers). Plugs have two flat, rectangular pins, as the US and Canada. Power cuts (known locally as “brownouts”) are common, especially in the provinces. If you are worried about using valuable electrical equipment in the Philippines – a laptop computer, for instance – you should plug it into an automatic voltage regulator (AVR), a small appliance that ensures the voltage remains constant even if there is a sudden fluctuation or surge in the mains.
Most foreign nationals do not need a visa to stay in the Philippines for up to thirty days, though a passport valid for at least six months and an onward plane or ship ticket to another country are required.
Your thirty days can be extended by 29 days (giving a total stay of 59 days) at immigration offices in Manila or around the country (see relevant chapters). The charge for this is around P3030, and you may be asked if you want to pay a P500 “express fee” that is supposed to guarantee the application is dealt with within 24 hours. If you don’t pay the fee, the process can take at least a week. Note that it pays to be presentably dressed at immigration offices, as staff might refuse to serve you if you turn up wearing a vest, shorts or flip-flops.
Many travel agents in tourist areas such as Malate in Manila and Boracay offer a visa extension service, saving you the hassle of visiting immigration centres. Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to use one of the fixers that hang around immigration offices, particularly in Manila. The “visa” they get you is often a dud and you run the risk of being detained and fined when you try to leave the country.
If you overstay your initial thirty days (but have not stayed beyond 59 days) you’ll be fined at least P500; overstay longer and you’ll be sent to the nearest office of the Bureau of Immigration for a whole lot of trouble.
Temporary Visitor’s Visa
If you know you want to spend longer than thirty days in the Philippines, apply for a 59-day Temporary Visitor’s Visa at a Philippine embassy or consulate before you travel. A single-entry visa (with which you must enter the Philippines within three months of the issue date) costs £22/€27/US$30/Can$34.50/Aus$54/NZ$42/ZAR270, while a multiple-entry visa, valid for one year from the date of issue (but with stays of a maximum 59 days within that year), is £65/€81/US$90/Can$103.50/Aus$162/NZ$126/ZAR810. A six-month multiple-entry visa is £43/€54/US$60/Can$69/Aus$108/NZ$84/ZAR540. Apart from a valid passport and a completed application form (downloadable from some Philippine embassy websites), you will have to present proof that you have enough money for the duration of your stay in the Philippines.
Regardless of how you entered the Philippines, to stay longer than 59 days you must apply for visa extensions at immigration bureaus every two months (fees range from P2830 to P4830). At the time of writing the government was considering the introduction of a Long Stay Visitor Visa Extension (LSVVE) programme, which would allow visitors to extend stays for six months after their first thirty days in one go; check government websites for the latest.
Note that if you have been in the Philippines continuously for six months, you must have an Emigration Clearance Certificate (P710) to pass through immigration at the airport. After six months you must also apply for an ACR-I card or “Alien Certificate of Registration” for P2800, and after sixteen months you need approval from the Chief of the Immigration Regulation Division. When you have been in the Philippines for two years you really will have to leave.
Philippine embassies and consulates abroad
For a full list of the Philippines’ embassies and consulates, check the government’s Department of Foreign Affairs website at www.dfa.gov.ph.
Australia Canberra 612 6273 2535, philembassy.org.au; Sydney 02 9262 7377; Melbourne 03 9863 7885; Perth 08 9481 5666. Consulates also in Adelaide, Brisbane, Darwin and Hobart.
Ireland Dublin 01 437 6206, philippineconsulate.ie.
New Zealand Wellington 644 472 9848, philembassy.org.nz.
South Africa Pretoria 012 346 0451, pretoriape.org.
UK London 020 7451 1800, philembassy-uk.org.
US Washington DC 202 467 9300, philippineembassy-usa.org; San Francisco 415 433 6666, philippinessanfrancisco.org; Los Angeles 213 639 0980, philippineslosangeles.org; New York 212 764 1330, philippinesnewyork.org; Chicago 312 583 0621, philippineschicago.org. Consulates also in Atlanta, Honolulu, Miami and Portland, OR.
Gay and lesbian travellers
Few Filipinos, even the most pious, pay much heed to the Catholic Church regarding homosexuality, and the prevailing attitude is that people can carry on doing what’s right for them. Gay culture in the Philippines is strong and largely unimpeded by narrow-mindedness, with the possible exceptions within politics and the military, where heterosexuality is still considered correct. Gays are respected as arbiters of fashion and art, and beauty parlours are often staffed by transsexuals.
The word bakla is used generically by many Filipinos and visitors to the Philippines to refer to gays, but that would be inaccurate. A bakla considers himself a male with a female heart – a pusong babae. Most are not interested in a sex-change operation and consider themselves a “third sex”, cross-dressing and becoming more “female” than many women. Another category of male homosexual is known as tunay ne lalake, men who identify themselves publicly as heterosexual but have sex with other men. Homosexuals who aren’t out permeate every stratum of Philippine society; rumours circulate almost daily of this-or-that tycoon or politician who is tunay ne lalake.
Lesbians are much more reticent about outing themselves than gay men, no doubt because there is still societal pressure for young women to become the quintessential Filipina lady – gracious, alluring and fulfilled by motherhood and the home (see Women travellers). Indeed, some Filipina lesbians complain that the more outspoken tomboys – lesbians are often referred to as tomboys – make the fight for women’s rights even harder.
The gay scene is centred on the bars and clubs of Malate in Manila, though there are also smaller scenes in other major cities such as Cebu, Davao and Cagayan de Oro. The websites utopia-asia.com and fridae.asia are useful sources of info on local gay life.
A typical travel insurance policy usually provides cover for the loss of baggage, tickets and cash, as well as cancellation or curtailment of your journey. When securing baggage cover, make sure that the per-article limit will cover your most valuable possession. Most policies exclude so-called dangerous sports unless an extra premium is paid: in the Philippines this can mean scuba diving, whitewater rafting, windsurfing, trekking and kayaking.
If you need to make a claim, you should keep receipts for medicines and medical treatment, and in the event you have anything stolen, you must obtain an official statement from the police. In the Philippines this is sometimes a slow process that involves the police officer copying, by hand, the details of your loss into what is known as the police “blotter”, or file. Once this has been signed by a superior officer you’ll get an authorized copy.
Major cities have dozens of internet cafés and even in small towns and isolated resort areas you can usually find somewhere to log on and send email. The cost of getting online at an internet café starts at around P40–60 per hour in the cities, while in the provinces it can be as cheap as P15–20 per hour. Wi-fi is more and more common in cafés and hotels throughout the country. Hotels reviewed in the Guide will normally offer free wi-fi unless stated otherwise.
There are no coin-operated launderettes in the Philippines, but there are laundries all over the place offering serviced washes for about P120–150 for an average load (ranging between P20 and P60/kg). Most of these places will iron clothes for you for an extra charge. It’s also possible to get clothes washed at pretty much any guesthouse, resort or hotel.
Living and working in the Philippines
Opportunities to work in the Philippines are limited. Most jobs require specialist qualifications or experience and, unlike other parts of Asia, there’s no market for teaching English as a foreign language. One possibility is to work for a diving outfit as a dive master or instructor. Rates of pay are low, but board and lodging may be provided if you work for a good operator or resort in a busy area (Boracay or Puerto Galera, for instance). Some international organizations also offer voluntary placements in the Philippines.
Australian Volunteers International Australia 03 9279 1788, australianvolunteers.com. Short- and long-term postings for professionals interested in working in the developing world. Volunteers in the Philippines have helped introduce sustainable fishing and marine conservation programmes and campaigned for the rights of minority groups.
Coral Cay Conservation UK 020 8545 7710, coralcay.org. Nonprofit organization that trains volunteers to collect scientific data to aid conservation in sensitive environments around the world, particularly coral reefs and tropical forests. At the time of writing marine expeditions were offered in southern Leyte.
Peace Corps US 1 800 424 8580, peacecorps.gov. Places people with specialist qualifications or skills in two-year postings in many developing countries, including the Philippines.
VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) UK 020 8780 7200, vso.org.uk. Charity that sends qualified professionals to work on projects beneficial to developing countries. In the Philippines, VSO has a small number of volunteers working within the fields of sustainable agriculture and aquaculture, or with displaced communities in Mindanao.
Airmail letters from the Philippines (philpost.gov.ph) take at least five days to reach other countries, though in many cases it’s a lot longer. International postcards cost P13 while letters up to 20 grams cost P24–45 depending on the destination. Ordinary domestic mail costs P9–12 for letters up to 20 grams. Post offices are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.
If you have to post anything valuable, use registered mail or pay extra for a courier. DHL (dhl.com.ph), Fedex (fedex.com/ph) and the locally based LBC (lbcexpress.com) and 2Go (go.com.ph) have offices throughout the country (listed on their websites), and can deliver stuff internationally. Sending documents overseas this way will cost from around P1325–1500 (to the US and Australia) to P2400 (to the UK) and takes two to three working days.
If you want to seek out Philippines maps at home, you’ll probably only find street maps of Manila and Cebu City, in addition to country maps. Nelles Verlag (nelles-verlag.de) publishes two good maps – a country map with a scale of 1:1,500,000 and a Manila city map. They are sometimes available in Manila bookshops, but can be hard to track down. The 1:1,750,000 Hema map (hemamaps.com.au) of the Philippines is another to look out for before you arrive.
Road maps and country maps can be bought at branches of the National Book Store in all major cities and towns, although supply is unreliable. Many bookshops sell the Accu-map range of atlases (www.accu-map.com), A–Z-like pocketbooks that cover the whole of Metro Manila and detailed maps of Baguio, Subic Bay, Cavite, Angeles City, Puerto Galera, Boracay and other destinations. United Tourist Promotions publishes a range of decent maps called EZ Maps (ezmaps.ph), covering Manila and the country’s regions, with each sheet featuring a combination of area and town maps.
The best map offered by the Philippine Department of Tourism (DoT) locally is the free Tourist Map of the Philippines, which includes a street map of Manila, contact numbers for all overseas and domestic DoT offices and listings of hotels, embassies and bus companies.
For a more varied selection of area maps and sea charts of the Philippines, try the National Mapping and Resources Information Authority (t 02 810 5466, namria.gov.ph) in Lawton Avenue, Fort Bonifacio, ten minutes by taxi from Makati.
The Philippine currency is the peso. One peso is divided into 100 centavos, with notes in denominations of P20, 50, 100, 200, 500 and 1000. Coins come in values of 25 centavos, P1, P5 and P10.
It’s best to arrive with some local currency, though you can easily withdraw cash at ATMs. These are found in cities and tourist destinations all over the country, but not in less visited areas such as the interior of Mindanao, the northern mountains, parts of Palawan (outside Puerto Princesa and Coron Town), and in remote areas of the Visayas. It’s best to use ATMs at major banks, and preferably in big cities, because these machines tend to be more reliable than provincial ones, which are often “offline” – because there’s no cash in them, the computer has crashed or a power cut has affected their operation. Credit cards are accepted by most hotels and restaurants in cities and tourist areas, though the smaller hotels may levy a surcharge if you pay by card.
Banks are normally open from 9am to 3pm, Monday to Friday, and all major branches have ATMs and currency exchange. The best-established local banks include BPI (Bank of the Philippine Islands), DBP (Development Bank of the Philippines), Metrobank and BDO (aka Banco de Oro); Citibank and HSBC also have branches in major cities. Most banks only change US dollars, and though many hotels will change other currencies, they offer poor rates. It’s easy to change dollars in Manila, where there are dozens of small moneychangers’ kiosks in Malate and P. Burgos Street, Makati, offering better rates than the banks; ask around at a few places and compare. In rural areas there are few moneychangers and banks don’t always change money, so if you’re heading off the beaten track, be sure to take enough pesos to last the trip.
Opening hours and public holidays
Most government offices are open Monday to Friday from 8.30am to 5.30pm, but some close for an hour-long lunch break, usually starting at noon, so it’s best to avoid the middle of the day. Businesses generally keep the same hours, with some also open on Saturday from 9am until noon. Banks are open Monday to Friday from 9am to 3pm and do not close for lunch, except for some of the smallest branches in rural areas. Shops in major malls open daily from 10am until 8pm or 9pm, later during the Christmas rush or “Midnight Madness” sales; the latter take place every two weeks on the first Friday after each payday. Churches are almost always open most of the day for worshippers and tourists alike. Typically, the first Mass of the day is at around 6am, the last at 6pm or 7pm.
Government offices and private businesses close on public holidays, though shops and most restaurants remain open except on Good Friday and Christmas Day. Holidays are often moved to the closest Friday or Monday to their original date, so that people in the cities can use the long weekend to get back to the provinces to spend a few days with their families. This moving of public holidays is done on an ad hoc basis and is announced in the press just a few weeks – sometimes only a few days – beforehand.
If you want to use a mobile phone bought abroad in the Philippines, it will need to be GSM/Triband and to have global roaming activated. For local calls it will probably work out cheaper to buy a local SIM card, available at dozens of mobile-phone outlets in malls and convenience stores, for any of the country’s four major mobile networks: Smart Communications, the best bet for iPhones (smart.com.ph), Globe Telecom (globe.com.ph), Talk ’N Text (talkntext.com.ph) and Sun Cellular (suncellular.com.ph). Local SIMs start at just P40 (Globe and Smart) and you can top up your credit for P100 to P500. Note that your phone must be “unlocked” to use a foreign SIM card (this can usually be done at local electronics shops, for a fee). Rates depend on which prepaid package you opt for – most come with unlimited domestic calls and texts to a certain limit. International call charges start at US$0.40 per minute, rising by US$0.04 every six seconds.
Basic mobiles in the Philippines are inexpensive, starting at less than P3000, so it can be worth buying one if you plan to stay for any length of time. Unless you have a permanent address in the country for home billing, you’ll be funding your calls with prepaid cards.
The Philippines is eight hours ahead of Universal Time (GMT) all year round.
Keep your purse or wallet well stocked with P10 coins and P20 notes for tips. In cafés, bars and hotel coffee shops many Filipinos simply leave whatever coins they get in their change. For good service in restaurants you should leave a tip of about ten percent. In more expensive restaurants where the bill could be a couple of thousand pesos, it’s okay to leave a somewhat smaller tip in percentage terms – P100 is a reasonable amount. Bellhops and porters get about P20 each and taxi drivers usually expect to keep the loose change.
The Philippine Department of Tourism (DoT; wowphilippines.com.ph) has a small number of overseas offices where you can pick up glossy brochures and get answers to general pre-trip questions about destinations, major hotels and domestic travel. These offices are not so helpful, however, when it comes to information about places off the beaten track. The DoT has offices throughout the Philippines, but most of them have small budgets and very little in the way of reliable information or brochures. The best source of up-to-date information on travelling in the Philippines is guesthouses and hotels that cater to travellers, most of which have notice boards where you can swap tips and ideas.
Travelling with children
Filipinos are extravagant in their generosity towards children, but because so much of the country lacks infrastructure, specific attractions for them are often hard to find. Major hotels in big cities such as Manila and Cebu City have playrooms and babysitting services, but even in popular tourist destinations such as Boracay there are few special provisions in all but the most expensive resorts.
This doesn’t mean travelling with children in the Philippines is a nightmare – far from it. Filipinos are very tolerant of children so you can take them almost anywhere without restriction, and children help to break the ice with strangers. They’ll be fussed over, befriended and looked after every step of the way.
Supermarkets in towns and cities throughout the Philippines have well-stocked children’s sections that sell fresh and formula milk, nappies and baby food. Department stores such as Rustan’s and SM sell baby clothes, bottles, sterilizing equipment and toys. And travelling with children in the Philippines needn’t be a burden on your budget. Domestic airlines give a discount of around fifty percent for children under twelve and hotels and resorts offer family rooms, extra beds for a minimal charge, or don’t charge at all for a small child sharing the parents’ bed. Most restaurants with buffet spreads will let a small child eat for free if he or she is simply taking nibbles from a parent’s plate. Try asking for a special portion – the staff are usually happy to oblige.
One potential problem for young ones is the climate. You’ll need to go to extra lengths to protect them from the sun and to make sure they are hydrated. A hat and good sunblock are essential. As for medical attention in the Philippines, there are good paediatricians at most major hospitals, in five-star hotels and many resorts.
Travellers with disabilities
Facilities for the disabled are rare except in the major cities. Taxis are cramped, while bangkas are notoriously tricky even for the able-bodied. For wheelchair users the pavements represent a serious obstacle in themselves. Often dilapidated and potholed, they are frustrating at the best of times and simply impassable at the worst, when pedestrians are forced to pick their way along the gutter in the road, dodging cars and motorcycles.
In Manila, Cebu City, Davao and some other big cities, the most upmarket hotels cater to the disabled and so do malls, cinemas and restaurants. Elsewhere, the good news for disabled travellers is that Filipinos are generous when it comes to offering assistance. Even in the remotest barangay, people will go out of their way to help you board a boat or lift you up the stairs of a rickety pier. Of course once you’re on board a ferry, for example, ramps and disabled toilets are likely to be nonexistent.
The government-run National Council on Disability Affairs or NCDA (02 951 6033, ncda.gov.ph) is mandated to formulate policies and coordinate the activities of all agencies concerning disability issues, but it doesn’t have much practical advice for disabled travellers. Staff at the group’s Quezon City office can give general pointers on transport and where to stay. More useful are local websites such as Handi Divers (handidivers.com/en) of Alona Beach (Panglao Island, Bohol), which specializes in scuba diving for disabled travellers.
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