The Philippines is a great place to buy indigenous art, woodwork, masks and religious artefacts, mostly at rock-bottom prices. Manila also contains a number of shiny malls with stores offering much the same designer gear you can find in London or New York. The country’s two main department-store chains are Rustan’s and SM. Both are good for clothes and shoes, at slightly lower prices than in the West; children’s clothes are especially inexpensive.
CDs are a bargain in the Philippines, at around P500 apiece for legitimately produced items, though the choice is limited to mainstream Western artists and OPM (“original Pilipino music”) from local stars. DVDs are also cheaper than in the West (P500–950 for legitimate releases), the range limited to Hollywood blockbusters and local movies. Note that pirated products are sold in many malls and on the street for a fraction of the price. The best places to buy legitimate releases are in Manila; elsewhere it’s a case of scouting around in the malls to find local retailers.
Typical souvenirs include models of jeepneys, wooden salad bowls, cotton linen and small items such as fridge magnets made of coconut shell or carabao horn. In department stores you can find cutlery sets made from carabao horn and bamboo and costing less than P2000. Woven placemats and coasters are inexpensive and easy to pack to take home. Filipino picture frames are eye-catching and affordable. Made from raw materials such as carabao horn and Manila hemp, they are available in most department stores. All towns have markets that sell cheap local goods such as sleeping mats (banig) that make colourful wall hangings, and earthernware water jars or cooking pots that make attractive additions to a kitchen.
For serious souvenir-hunting, you’ll have to rummage around in small antique shops. There aren’t many of these, and they’re often tucked away in low-rent areas. The better shops in big cities are listed in the Guide; elsewhere, ask around at your hotel or look in the local Yellow Pages under “Antique dealers”. Many of the items in these shops are religious artefacts, although you’ll also find furniture, decorative vases, lamps, old paintings, mirrors and brassware.
Some souvenir stores and antique shops will ship goods home for you for an extra charge. Otherwise you could send bulky items home by regular post. Note that the trade in coral and seashells as souvenirs in beach areas is decidedly unsound environmentally, as is the manufacture of decorative objects and jewellery from seashells.
Not all tribal and religious artefacts are genuine, but even the imitations make good gifts. Woven baskets and trays of the kind used by Cordillera tribes are a bargain, starting from only a few hundred pesos. They come in a range of sizes and shapes, including circular trays woven from grass that are still used to sift rice, and baskets worn like a backpack for carrying provisions. The best are the original tribal baskets, which cost a little more than the reproductions, but have an appealing nut-brown timbre as a result of the many times they have been oiled. You can find them in antique shops around the country and also in markets in Banaue and Sagada.
Some exceptional home accessories and ornaments are produced by tribes in Mindanao, particularly in less touristy areas such as Marawi City and around Lake Sebu. Beautiful brass jars, some of them more than a metre tall, cost around P2000, while exquisite wooden chests inlaid with mother-of-pearl cost around P3000, inlaid serving trays P500.
Rice gods (bulol), carved wooden deities sometimes with nightmarish facial expressions, are available largely in Manila and the Cordilleras. In Manila, they cost anything from a few hundred pesos for a small reproduction to P20,000 for a genuine figurine of modest size; they’re much cheaper if you haggle for them in Banaue or Sagada. At markets in the Cordilleras, look out also for wooden bowls, various wooden wall carvings and fabric wall hangings.
The best place to look for Catholic religious art is in Manila, though antique shops in other towns also have a selection. Wooden Catholic statues called santos and large wooden crucifixes are common. Cheaper religious souvenirs such as rosaries and icons of saints are sold by street vendors outside many of the more high-profile pilgrimage cathedrals and churches such as Quiapo in Manila and Santo Niño in Cebu.
In market areas such as Divisoria in Manila, Colon in Cebu and the Palitan barter centre in Marawi, Mindanao, you can find colourful raw cloth and finished batik products. Don’t leave Mindanao without investing a couple of hundred pesos in a malong, a versatile tube-like garment of piña (pineapple fibre) that can be used as a skirt, housedress, blanket or bedsheet. Ceremonial malong are more ornate and expensive, from P4000 to P10,000. Another native textile is Manila hemp, which comes from the trunk of a particular type of banana tree. Both piña and Manila hemp are used to make attractive home accessories sold in department stores, such as laundry baskets, lampshades and vases. The versatile and pliable native grass, sikat, is woven into everything from placemats to rugs.
Department stores everywhere have a good selection of Philippine linen products with delicate embroidery and lace flourishes. Some of these are handmade in Taal; a good set of pillowcases and bedsheets will cost about P2000 in Taal’s market, half the price in Rustan’s or SM. In beach areas you’ll find a good range of cotton sarongs, cheap (from P200), colourful and versatile – they can be used as tablecloths or throws.
The malls are full of stalls selling cheap jewellery, but you’ll also find silver-plated earrings, replica tribal-style jewellery made with tin or brass, and attractive necklaces made from bone or polished coconut shell. In Mindanao – as well as in some malls in Manila, Cebu City and at souvenir stalls in Boracay – pearl jewellery is a bargain. Most of the pearls are cultivated on pearl farms in Mindanao and Palawan. White pearls are the most common, but you can also find pink and dove grey. They are made into earrings, necklaces and bracelets; simple earrings cost around P450 while a necklace can range from P1000 for a single string up to P10,000 for something more elaborate.
In Cebu, and increasingly on the streets of Manila and Davao, you can pick up a locally made handcrafted guitar, bandurria (mandolin) or ukelele. Though the acoustic quality is nothing special, the finish may include mother-of-pearl inlays, and prices are low – a steel-string acoustic guitar will set you back P2000. Mindanao’s markets – such as Aldevinco in Davao – are a good place to rummage for decorative drums and Muslim gongs.