On P3200 (£52/US$80/€60) 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 for domestic flights and good meals in local restaurants.
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, 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. Several members of the gang were arrested in 2010, but similar cases have been reported in Baguio and Banaue, and it’s best to be on your guard if you’re approached by people who seem unusually keen to offer you assistance.
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 t 117.
You can apply for a 59-day visa from a Philippine embassy or consulate before you travel. A single-entry visa, valid for three months from the date of issue, costs around US$40, and a multiple-entry visa, valid for one year from the date of issue, around US$90. 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.
Your 21-day visa can be extended by 38 days (giving a total stay of 59 days) at immigration offices (see relevant chapters). The charge for this is around P2000, 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.
Visitors are allowed to bring in four hundred cigarettes, two tins of tobacco and two bottles of wine and spirits not exceeding one litre. If you arrive with more than US$10,000 (unlikely) in cash 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.
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.
For unlimited Wi-Fi on the go whilst travelling Philippines, buy a Skyroam Solis, which works in 130+ countries at one flat daily rate, paid for on a pay-as-you-go basis. You can connect up to five devices at once. Prices start from as little as €5 a day.
Study opportunities are also limited. There are a number of language schools, mostly in Manila, where you can learn Tagalog; one of the biggest is Languages Internationale at 926 Arnaiz Ave in Makati (t02/810-7971, wwww.languagesintl.com).
If you have to post anything valuable, use registered mail or pay extra for a courier. DHL (wwww.dhl.com.ph), Fedex (wwww.fedex.com.ph), and the locally based LBC (wwww.lbcexpress.com) and 2Go (wwww.2go.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 P1000 (US and Australia) to P2000 (UK) and take two to three working days.
Many bookshops sell the Accu-map range of atlases (wwww.accu-map.com), A to Z-like pocketbooks that cover the whole of Metro Manila and detailed maps that cover Baguio, Subic Bay, Cavite, Angeles City, Puerto Galera, Boracay and other destinations. United Tourist Promotions publishes a range of decent maps called EZ Map, covering Manila and the country’s regions, with each sheet featuring a combination of area and town maps.
If you want to seek out Philippines maps at home, you’ll probably only find maps of Manila and Cebu City, in addition to country maps. Nelles Verlag (wwww.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 (wwww.hemamaps.com.au) of the Philippines is another to look out for before you arrive.
For a more varied selection of area maps and sea charts of the Philippines, try the National Mapping and Resources Information Authority (t02/810-5466, wwww.namria.gov.ph) in Lawton Avenue, Fort Bonifacio, 10 minutes by taxi from Makati.
It’s best to arrive with some local currency. Otherwise you can easily withdraw cash at ATMs 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, areas of Palawan outside Puerto Princesa and Coron Town, and in remote parts 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.
Travellers’ cheques are safer to carry than cash, though note that you can only change them at a limited number of banks in Manila and in a few tourist haunts such as Malate and Boracay. It’s best to bring US-dollar denominations from the major issuers – Thomas Cook, Visa or American Express.
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 Equitable PCI; 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.
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.
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.
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 torpid 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. If your child requires medical attention in the Philippines, there are good paediatricians at most major hospitals, in five-star hotels and many resorts.
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 barrio, 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 agency the National Council on Disability Affairs or NCDA (t02/951-6033, wwww.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 Cebu on Wheels (wwww.cebuonwheels.com.ph), and Handi Divers (wwww.handidivers.com) of Alona Beach (Panglao Island, Bohol), which specializes in scuba diving for disabled travellers.
For a full list of hospitals in the country and a searchable database of doctors by location and speciality, check w ww.rxpinoy.com. There are pharmacies on almost every street corner where you can buy local and international brand medicines. Branches of Mercury Drug, the country’s biggest chain of pharmacies, are listed on wwww.mercurydrug.com.
If you are hospitalized, you’ll have to pay a deposit on your way in and settle the bill – either in person or through your insurance company.
In the Philippines malaria is found only in isolated areas of southern Palawan and the Sulu archipelago, and few travellers bother with anti-malarials if they are sticking to the tourist trail. If you are unsure of your itinerary it’s best to err on the safe side and consult your doctor about malaria medication. Anti-malarials must be taken before you enter a malarial zone, and note that resistance to chloroquine, one of the common drugs, is a significant problem in Mindanao and Palawan.
To avoid mosquito bites, wear long-sleeved shirts, long trousers and a hat. Use an insect repellent that contains DEET (diethylmethyltoluamide) and – unless you are staying in air-conditioned or well-screened accommodation – buy a mosquito net impregnated with the insecticide permethrin or deltamethrin. In the Philippines mosquito nets are hard to find, so buy one before you go. If you are unable to find a pretreated mosquito net you can buy one and spray it yourself.
Stray and badly cared for dogs are everywhere in the Philippines, and rabies claims about eight hundred lives a year. The stereotype of rabid animals being deranged and foaming at the mouth is just that; some infected animals become lethargic and sleepy, so don’t presume a docile dog is a safe one. If you are scratched or bitten by a stray dog, wash the wound immediately with soap and water, then get yourself to a hospital.
Some of the most trusted reporting on the Philippines comes from the Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism (wwww.pcij.org), founded in 1989 by nine Filipino journalists who wanted to go beyond the day-to-day razzmatazz and inanities of the mainstream press. Journalists working for the PCIJ were responsible for the exposé of former President Joseph Estrada’s unexplained wealth, which led eventually to his downfall.
There are over 350 radio stations in the Philippines, and between them they present a mind-boggling mix of news, sport, music and chitchat. Radio news channels such as DZBB and RMN News AM tend to broadcast in Filipino, but there are dozens of FM pop stations that use English with a smattering of Filipino. The music they play isn’t anything special, mostly mellow jazz and pop ballads by mainstream artists. Among the most popular FM stations are Wow FM (103.5MHz) and Crossover (105.1 MHz). A shortwave radio also gives access to the BBC World Service (wwww.bbc.co.uk/worldservice), Radio Canada (wwww.rcinet.ca), Voice of America (wwww.voa.gov) and Radio Australia (wwww.abc.net.au/ra), among other international broadcasters.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Never play hardball and make a brusque “take it or leave it” offer because that’s likely to cause embarrassment and offence. Start by offering fifty to sixty percent of the initial asking price and work your way up from there. Foreigners tend to get less of a discount than Filipinos, so if you’re travelling with Filipino friends, ask them to do the haggling for you and hover in the background as if you’re not interested.
The sari-sari store is also held dear by Filipinos as an unofficial community centre. Many sari-sari stores, especially in the provinces, have crude sitting areas outside, encouraging folk to linger in the shade and gossip or talk basketball and cockfighting.
While it’s illegal to sell or procure sex, the trade still operates under the guise of entertainment: sex workers are employed as singers, dancers, waitresses or “guest relations officers” in clubs and bars where they are expected to leave with any client who pays a fee. Then there’s what are euphemistically dubbed “freelancers”, prostitutes that independently cruise bars looking for paying customers.
According to the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (wwww.catw-ap.org), some fifteen thousand Australian men a year visit Angeles, north of Manila, on sex tours; plenty of Americans, Brits and Europeans join them, while Koreans, Taiwanese and Chinese have developed their own networks, usually based on karaoke bars and restaurants. Manila, Cebu City, Subic Bay and Pasay City are also major sex destinations.