The Philippines: First Impressions

Perhaps it was coming directly from Singapore but it’s taken a little while to work out what’s different about the Philippines. And what’s familiar.

The people look very much like those in Malaysia but noticeably poorer. Designer fashions and branded trainers have made way here for threadbare t-shirts and flip-flops. And, of course, there’s not a Muslim headscarf in sight. Mostly Christian — a legacy of 16th century Spanish explorers — women here dress in the same kind of warm weather clothes you see in Hindu and Buddhist countries. Janet can finally put aside her long trousers and get back into shorts.

Like Nepal, there’s a home-made look to many of the houses, even concrete ones. And it’s not unusual to see an abandoned, half-built house alongside a beautifully tiled and painted one on one side and a giddily-angled wooden-stilted one the other. But the roads are in much better condition than Nepal. Not completely without bumpy, unsealed stretches but without the spine-jarring potholes that make Nepalese bus travel so arduous.

The food is a strange mix of familiar and unfamiliar, not helped by my finding Tagalog words rather difficult to fix in my memory (Sinigang, longganisa, kaldereta…). But the names aside, one thing is very clear: I wouldn’t want to be a vegetarian here. Everything has meat in it. In fact, meat seems to be something of a national obsession. There are roasted chicken shops on every corner in the city, as well as burger stands and restaurants fronted by a dizzying array of meaty stews and soups. As for flavours, after Thailand and all the Indian food we ate in Malaysia, it seems a little bland, relying on savoury flavours rather than spices, salt, sugar, lime juice or chillies. Still, now my palate has lowered its expectations, it’s really rather delicious… More like European or South American cooking than much of what we’ve had while abroad.

And it’s cheap. Not just compared to Singapore. Compared to anywhere else we’ve been. Dining in one of the nicest restaurants in Dumaguete, each dish only cost around £2. Pastries from a bakery cost 3p each. A 2km taxi ride cost 15p each. I feel surprisingly wealthy.

But our new-found wealth comes at a price. There’s poverty here. Lots of it. I’ve not seen a single overweight person – something I’ve come to realise represents GDP fairly accurately over the countries we’ve moved through. And we’ve seen kids begging for the first time since Nepal. But despite the hardship, everyone is incredibly friendly. You can smile at and make jokes with strangers. People are helpful. And everyone speaks great English with a charming, half-American accent and American-style tendency to call strangers “sir” or “ma’am”.

Finally, the landscape here is both beautiful and unlike anywhere else we’ve been. Made up of so many islands, we’ve never been far from the coastline and ferries or bangkas (outrigger-style wooden motor boats) are required for a lot of journeys. But the interior is lush and rises dramatically away from the seafront, with plant-life that ranges from familiar banana plants and coconut palms to more deciduous-looking trees I’ve yet to identify. And, for the first time since we left home, there’s a breeze.

It’s refreshing to be somewhere unfamiliar. Having to take in even the little details seems to slow time down, and I’m enjoying having to think on my feet rather than rest on experience when making my way around. My first impressions have been very pleasant so far.

Flying Blind into the Philippines

At the time it seemed like a good idea to spend our last evening in Singapore visiting one of its famous drinking spots, Clarke Quay, where swish bars nestle along the riverfront, and well dressed, white toothed young people gaily spend fortunes on expensive drinks and fine foods. And it was definitely part of the Singapore experience.

But at 5am the next morning, when the alarm rang for our flight to the Philippines, it was hard not to regret the lack of sleep, muddled hungover head, exhausted children and considerably lighter wallet our trip to the waterfront had provided us.

Still, we made the flight, and collapsing, bleary-eyed and exhausted into our seats, got out the guidebook and tried to decide where to go in this new, unfamiliar country. Having no real idea what to expect from the Philippines, for the first time since arriving in Nepal, we were going in blind, having neither booked anywhere to stay nor even decided which town (or even which island) to stay in.

While we were flying into Cebu, it was obvious from our guidebook that we would want to get away from Cebu City as soon as we could. Should we head elsewhere on Cebu island? Hop over to a different one? But then… which of the surrounding islands to choose? Cebu is in the centre of the Visayas, a group of islands towards the south of the country, all of which sounded appealing in their own ways but tricky enough to travel between that we would have to just choose a few to hop between during our eighteen days in the country. Should we choose rugged Leyte, chilled-out Bohol, witchcraft-haunted Siquijor, beach-paradise Malapascua, dive-mecca Panglau…

The Visayas, the Philippines

The Visayas, the Philippines

Eventually we plumped for Negros, persuaded by the Lonely Planet’s introduction of, “if one island has it all”. With diving, hiking up the regions tallest peak, caving, snorkelling, beautiful, remote beaches, and, most appealing, a capitol (Dumaguete) lacking the usual chaos and hustle of Filipino cities and charmingly nicknamed The City of Gentle People. It looked just the place to stop, settle in, get our bearings and familiarise ourselves a little with Filipino culture.

Unfortunately, reaching Dumaguete also meant extending our already exhausting journey into an epic dash across the region, involving multiple taxis, long-distance buses, trikes and ROROs with increasingly exhausted kids in tow and without any guarantee of a bed at the end of our journey.

From start to finish, getting here took seventeen hours. It was sometimes fraught, occasionally baffling and not knowing if we would arrive too late to find a room or if we’d even get to somewhere with accommodation by the time we ran out of transport links added a constant anxiety. But everyone we met was friendly and helpful, and considering that we started the day unfamiliar with the Philippines, we got to see a broad range of places through various windows (and hanging off trikes) that have helped us get a sense of where we are.

And we made it.

Our first choice of hotel had rooms, is clean, comfortable and friendly, and positioned right on the promenade. As I came out to Janet where she waited by our overloaded trike still stuffed with bags and sleepy children and gave her the thumbs up, we all cheered, checked in at lightning speed, threw ourselves into bed with a real sense of exhausted a

It's gone dark but we're still on the road (or the ferry in this case – from Cebu to Negros)

It’s gone dark but we’re still on the road (or the ferry in this case – from Cebu to Negros)

ccomplishment and had fallen asleep within moments.


Much of the thrill of travelling is to launch yourself into the unknown but to come through, tired but invigorated from having experienced the unexpected. It was exhilarating, winging our way here and I feel like we’re really travelling again after the comfortable modernity of Singapore, all the prebooking we had to do in Thailand and Malaysia and staying still for so long in Nepal.

But I think we’ll stay still for a day or two now.>