Travel Tips Philippines for planning and on the go
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
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. You can get by on a frugal budget of around P800 per person (£13/US$20/€15) 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 eating to local restaurants and carinderias, with little leeway for slap-up meals 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 P1600 (£26/US$40/€30) 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 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.
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 troublespots. Updated travel advisories are available on foreign office or state department websites including wwww.state.gov in the US and wwww.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, 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.
Usually 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 cell-phones, cameras, MP3 players and laptops are dual voltage (hair-dryers are the biggest problem for North American travellers). Plugs have two flat, rectangular pins (same 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 tourists do not need a visa to enter the Philippines for up to 21 days, though a passport valid for at least six months and an onward plane or ship ticket to another country are required.
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.
A typical travel insurance policy usually provides cover for the loss of baggage, tickets and cash or cheques, 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; wi-fi is becoming more common in cafés and hotels throughout the country. 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.
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.
There are no coin-operated launderettes in the Philippines, but there are laundries all over the place offering serviced washes for about P150 for an average load. 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.
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). For more on learning to dive. Some international organizations also offer voluntary placements in the Philippines.
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).
Airmail letters from the Philippines (wphilpost.gov.ph) take at least five days to reach other countries, though in many cases it’s a lot longer. Postcards cost P13 while letters up to 20 grams cost P30 to P45 depending on the destination. Ordinary domestic mail costs P20 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 (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.
The best maps of the Philippines are in this book, but many smaller towns and cities in the Philippines haven’t been mapped at all. The best map the Philippine Department of Tourism (DoT) offers 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. 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 (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.
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. At the time of writing the exchange rate was around P43 to US$1, P67 to £1 and a little less than P58 to the euro.
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.
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 pay day. 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.
The Philippines has embraced the mobile-phone age with vigour, partly because sending text messages is cheap and because mobile networks provide coverage in areas where landlines are limited. If you want to use a cellular phone bought abroad in the Philippines, you’ll need a GSM/Triband phone and to have global roaming activated. Ask your service provider what the charges are for making and receiving calls when abroad. For local calls it will probably work out cheaper to buy a local SIM card, available at dozens of mobile-phone outlets in malls for any of the country’s four mobile networks: Smart Communications, Globe Telecom, Talk ’N Text and Sun Cellular. Local SIMs start at just P55–200 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 be done at local electronics shops). Standard-rate domestic calls from mobiles cost from P6.50–7.50 a minute (US$0.40 per minute for international calls); there are no charges for receiving calls. There are card outlets and dispensing machines in malls and convenience stores and at airports.
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 and bars 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; wwww.wowphilippines.com.ph and wwww.tourism.gov.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.
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 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.
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 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.
As long as you’re careful about what you eat and drink and how long you spend in the sun, you shouldn’t have any major health problems in the Philippines. Hospitals in cities and even in small towns are generally of a good standard, although health care is rudimentary in the remotest barrios. Anything potentially serious is best dealt with in Manila. Doctors and nurses almost always speak English, and doctors in major cities are likely to have received some training in the US or the UK, where many attend medical school.
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.
Food- and waterborne diseases are the most likely cause of illness in the Philippines. Travellers’ diarrhoea can be caused by viruses, bacteria or parasites, which can contaminate food or water. There’s also a risk of typhoid or cholera – occasional cases are reported in the Philippines, mostly in poor areas without adequate sanitation. Another potential threat is that of hepatitis A. The authorities in Manila claim tap water in many areas is safe for drinking, but it’s not worth taking the chance – stick to bottled water.
Dengue fever, a debilitating and occasionally fatal viral disease, is on the increase across tropical Asia. Many cases are reported in the Philippines each year, mostly during or just after the wet season when the day-biting mosquito that carries the disease is most active. There is no vaccine against dengue. Initial symptoms – which develop five to eight days after being bitten – include a fever that subsides after a few days, often leaving the patient with a bad rash all over their body, headaches and fierce joint pain. The only treatment is rest, liquids and paracetamol or any other acetaminophen painkiller (not aspirin). Dengue can result in death, usually among the very young or very old, and serious cases call for hospitalization.
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.
If you’re trekking through rainforest, especially in the rainy season, there’s a good chance you’ll encounter leeches, blood-sucking freshwater worms that attach themselves to your skin and can be tricky to remove. If you find a leech on your skin it’s important not to pull it off because the mouth parts could be left behind and cause infection. Use an irritant like salt or heat from a cigarette or match to make the leech let go, then treat the wound with antiseptic. You can guard against leeches in the first place by securing cuffs and trouser bottoms. Climbers in the Philippines say rubbing ordinary soap with a little water on your skin and clothes helps keep leeches at bay.
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.
Filipinos are inordinately proud of their nation’s status as the first democracy in Asia, a fact reflected in their love of a free press. Once Marcos was gone and martial law with him, the shackles truly came off and the Philippine media became one of the most vociferous and freewheeling in the world. There is a dark side to this, however – the Philippines is also one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist, with many killed every year. If you’re looking for news from home, most cities and tourist areas now have cable TV with CNN and possibly the BBC. Foreign news publications are harder to find. The best bet is to visit a five-star hotel, where lobby gift shops sometimes stock the International Herald Tribune, Time, Newsweek and The Economist.
Major English-language daily broadsheet newspapers include the Philippine Daily Inquirer (wwww.inquirer.net), the Philippine Star (wwww.philstar.com) and the Manila Times (wwww.manilatimes.net). There are dozens of tabloids on the market, all of them lurid and often gruesome. Most of these are in Tagalog, though People’s Tonight (wwww.journal.com.ph) is largely in English with Filipino thrown in where the vernacular better expresses the drama, such as in quotations from victims of crime and from the police.
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.
Terrestrial television networks include GMA (wwww.gmanetwork.com) and ABS-CBN (wwww.abs-cbn.com), offering a diet of histrionic soaps, chat shows and daytime game shows with sexy dancers. Cable television is now widely available in the Philippines, with the exception of some of the most undeveloped rural areas. Most providers carry BBC World, CNN and Australian ABC. At weekends during the season there’s American football, baseball and English Premier League football on Star Sports or ESPN. Movie channels include HBO, Cinemax and Star Movies.
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.
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.
Prices are fixed in department stores and most retail outlets in malls, but in many antique shops and in markets, you’re expected to haggle. Bargaining is always amicable and relaxed, never confrontational. Filipinos see it as something of a polite game, interjecting their offers and counter offers with friendly chitchat about the weather, the state of the nation or, if you’re a foreigner, where you come from and what you’re doing in the Philippines.
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.
A Philippine institution, the humble sari-sari store – sari-sari means “various” or “a variety” – is often no more than a barrio shack or a hole in the wall selling an eclectic but practical range of goods. If you’re short of shampoo, body lotion, cigarettes, rum, beer or you’ve got a headache and need a painkiller, the local sari-sari store is the answer, especially in areas without supermarkets. All items are sold in the smallest quantities possible: shampoo comes in packets half the size of a credit card, medicine can be bought by the pill and cigarettes are sold individually. Buy a soft drink or beer and you may be perplexed to see the store holder pour it into a plastic bag, from which you’re expected to drink it through a straw. This is so they can keep the bottle and return it for the deposit of a few centavos. Most sari-sari stores are fiercely familial, their names – the Three Sisters, the Four Brothers or Emily and Jon-Jon’s – reflecting their ownership.
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.
The Philippines, like some other Southeast Asian countries, has an unfortunate reputation for prostitution and sex tourism. It’s a huge industry domestically with an estimated 800,000 men, women and, sadly, children working in the trade. The country’s international image as a sex destination was largely a result of the US military presence here during and after World War II when “go go” or “girlie” bars flourished around the bases at Clark and Subic Bay.
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.
Child Protection in the Philippines (wcpu-net.org.ph) estimates that almost half the prostitutes in the Philippines are underage, many of them street children lured from the provinces by the promise of work or simply food and water. If you suspect someone of being a paedophile or engaging in any abusive behaviour towards minors, call hotline t1-6-3 or check www.bantaybata163.com.
Though you will often see older Western men accompanied by young, attractive Filipina women, don’t assume all of these are prostitutes; the situation is confused further by the legal and equally popular phenomenon of mail-order brides (most now arranged by online dating sites) – plenty of the men you’ll see have been matched with their Filipina “girlfriend” and intend to marry them, however dubious this might seem.