With US military bases, sex tourism and the worst typhoons in Asia, the Philippines are also home to stunning white beaches, welcoming Filipinos and some great hash. Just ditch the cites and head out into the sticks.
The Philippines are 7107 mountainous islands east of the South China Sea and the distance from the Asian mainland keeps the backpacker hordes at bay. Previous invaders were less troubled by the geography though and the Philippines have had a history of military and cultural domination that has left a fairly mixed-up country today.
The Spanish were the first to arrive and left the Catholic religion and the usual moral legacy of guilt, sin and shame. After a war with the Spanish on the other side of the world, the USA bought the islands and a new kind of cultural imperialism left the Philippines with a McDonalds and KFC in almost every town.
The Philippines eventually achieved independence and a series of horrendously corrupt dictators have made the country one of the poorest in Southeast Asia.
The Philippines are not for the uptight traveler. Nothing is ever even close to being on time and basic utilities are rarely working. The water supply is so erratic that everywhere in the country people shower out of buckets, filling them when the water is working and leaving them for later.
But though everything is broken down and chaotic, everything works out okay in the end and travel in the Philippines becomes an exercise in going with the flow. You leave at home quaint notions like ‘time is money’ because there’s no money but there’s sure as hell a lot of time. Used to chronic unemployment and natural disasters, a bottle of rum and the chronic heat leave the Filipinos with more than the usual tropical fatalism.
With backpackers too tight to pay for the extra flight, the most visible form of tourism in the Philippines is based around sex. Old men retire from the West to a country where everyone speaks English, the beer is cheap and beautiful young Filipina women are more than available. For a price. Cities like Angeles are full of old white men walking around with teenage prostitutes on their arms and street vendors sell Viagra alongside candy.
The cities by and large are slums, with huge amounts of migrants from the countryside struggling to hold on to a very meager existence. Street kids are everywhere and as the glue they sniff is low on nutrients, many look close to starving. Violent crime in the big cities is also prevalent and travelers who go wandering the streets of somewhere like Manila at night are just asking for trouble.
The lack of major tourism has meant that a lot of the culture and nature of the rural parts of the Philippines have gone untouched. There are thousands of remote islands with white sand beaches and clear water, making you wonder why anyone bothers with Thailand.
A foreign traveler out in the countryside will attract a lot of attention, and it’s not uncommon for a complete stranger to offer their daughter, sister or cousin to you to marry, assuming that you take care of the whole family. Everyone will stare at you and little kids will either hide in fear of this strange outsider or else follow you around for an hour trying to figure you out.
North of Manila, the main island of Luzon becomes very mountainous and remote. This is where you’ll find the rice terraces of Banaue and Batad, along with some amazing tribal cultures in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Further north or east the island gets quite remote and isolated and you won’t be seeing any McDonalds for a long time. It can get pretty wild though and a good deal of ganja are grown in the eastern part of Ifugao.
The central part of the country is a collection of thousands of little islands, called the Visayas, most of which are uninhabited. The main resorts are here but can be easily avoided. Pick a small island on a map and find a way to get there. You’ll be discovering paradise, but bring a hammock and a mosquito net, because you probably won’t be finding any hostels or hotels around. Siquijor is incredible, as is Palawan.
The southern island of Mindanao is considered a complete no-go area for most travelers in the Philippines, as it holds the vast majority of the Filipino-Muslim population, which is currently clashing with the central government. The US military also has soldiers here as it fights Abu Sayyaf, a militant group with ties to al-Qaeda that is famous for kidnappings, murders, and terrorist attacks.
For those who think that US foreign policy can go fuck itself, however, Mindanao is amazing. There have been tribes out in the jungle discovered by anthropologists as late as the 1990’s. The island is untouched and wild but you’ll find heartbreaking hospitality from the locals. Marawi City is the heart of the Muslim part of the island.
For all its problems the Philippines is an amazingly rare and beautiful country to visit or live in. People are incredibly hospitable and kind, the water and beaches are some of the best in the world, and there’s still a lot of unspoiled nature and indigenous culture if you can be bothered to look for it.
Just avoid the cities.