Travel in the Philippines is cheap, way-overcrowded, horrendously dangerous and actually kind of fun.
As there are over 7000 islands in the Philippines, a lot of traveling is done by boat. There are a huge variety of vessels used, depending on where you want to go and how much you want to pay. Sometimes, you may have nothing more than a bunk on the deck of a cargo ship.
Ferry schedules are extremely unpredictable, so go to the station the morning of your departure and make sure there’s a boat leaving that day for where you’re trying to go. It’s not unheard of to go to the wrong island based on a faulty schedule. The best thing to do is adopt an easy-come-easy go attitude and get on another boat the next day. Who knows but you were fated to get lost.
If you’re looking to get somewhere fast, you need to fly. Flights in the Philippines are often cheaper than long distance ferries and are typically on time. Then again, you’re fucking up the climate with all those fumes.
Jeepneys are special to the Philippines. The US military had a huge presence on the islands after the Second World War and, not having any use for the vast amount of old beat up army jeeps left over, simply gave them to the Filipino government. Through some marvel of mechanics, they’re still the backbone of the Filipino public transport system.
You’ll see these old jeeps everywhere in the Philippines. In the ‘wealthier’ urban areas, the jeepneys are impressively decorated with all kinds of eagles, stars, stripes and just about anything else American you can think of. The better the paint job, the more business a driver receives, so they take it pretty seriously. The interiors are often pretty pimped as well. The ceiling might be covered with a shag rug, or the benches lining the two sides in the back might be leather. It’s an interesting sub-culture.
Unfortunately, it’s rarely comfortable. Imagine 26 people packed into a space about the size of the average minivan with large cargoes of rice, chickens, or whatever. It gets even worse out into the countryside but at least then you don’t get stuck in a tunnel with hundreds of other jeeps, spewing out horrid fumes from their pre-catalytic converter exhausts. You’re advised to bring a rag to breathe through in any major city.
The culture of the jeepneys is interesting. You’ll soon realize that without a lot of little unspoken rules the whole system would collapse. Generally, women, children and the elderly will ride inside, while young men will stand on the outside, or ride on top and spit betel. This is much more common in the countryside where 30 or more people may ride on one jeep. Unfortunately, foreigners (even young men) aren’t allowed to ride on top.
On the inside of the jeepney, children are passed around between strangers, money is passed to the front (and the driver somehow keeps track of all of this, some people paying when they get on and others paying when they leave). Everyone crams together as close as possible and it’s a good remedy for people who feel alienated from humanity.
A real complaint is that jeepneys will often wait for long periods of time to fill up before leaving a stop. This can be uncomfortable when you’re sitting under the equatorial sun at midday in commonly 80% humidity. Bring lots of water…
Busses are common and cheap. They are usually more comfortable than the jeepneys but the second classes busses can be just as bad. Make sure you don’t end up with your rucksack on your lap for 3 hours…
Choose air-con busses whenever possible. They are only slightly more expensive and much more comfortable.