Philippines – a country full of dreams.
Not so much visited as Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia are, this tropical, hectic, chaotic country gives the shadiest parts of Thailand (*cough*Phuket*cough*) a run for its money. Before Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the Pearl Of The Orient Seas, I had the pleasure of travelling through this humble, South East Asian jewel that is all too often ignored by backpackers. Perhaps that is a good thing, as comparative to other places in Asia I have backpacked, this was cleaner (Manila is contentious), its beaches in immaculate condition due to an absence of senseless debauchery and hardcore partying, and its occupants (backpackers and luxury travellers) appearing to be there for tame relaxation, rather than an overly indulgent holiday.
The Philippines is the place to go to if you want a cheap trip, without the questionable excess that say, Phuket is reputed for, while chilling out on world-class beaches, and dining on Spanish-inspired cuisine. This, after all, used to be a Spanish colony, and the funkiness of a Latin-Asian mix is just too enticing to ignore. You want to be involved in the Filipino way of life when you arrive. Dark alleyways on Boracay will see you pass dilapidated buildings, occupied by a dozen bodies sleeping on dusty mattresses, before arriving at alluring Spanish taverns that rival those found in Spain (no kidding)!
After you’ve explored the cosmopolitan streets, hiding everything from dwarf bars to surf shops, head down to Talipapa and check out the fresh seafood market. Here, you buy the fish of your choice (including huge prawns and lobsters), and carry it with you to one of the nearby hole-in-the-wall restaurants, who cook it for you to your liking. It’s an enjoyable experience that feels intimate, and you can rest assured knowing that the fish is absolutely fresh (if you go for lobster, they’re alive when you buy them).
There’s also the possibility of going to Bulabog Beach, which is a world-renowned kitesurfing beach full of…kite surfers (naturally). This is great if you’re into the sport, otherwise it’s not the ideal place to go for a swim, since it’s predominantly overrun with kite surfers catching massive winds.
The island is split into five main areas: Stations 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. Station 1 contains the island’s most famous beach, White Beach. It’s a little more on the luxurious side with less to do than Station 2, which is full of bars, restaurants, night shows and market stalls. Station 3 is quieter, and offers good value for accommodation, if you don’t mind being further away from the action. Station 4 is where Bulabog Beach is, so if you’re into kite surfing, this is the place to be!
Station 5 actually flanks either side of Stations 1, 2, 3, and 4, and contains more resort style accommodation. It’s largely remote, so unless you’re on a honeymoon and really want some alone time, this probably isn’t the most active place to be.
I’ll have to conclude this post about my time travelling in the Philippines with two interesting observations, which I hope do not deter you from travelling here.
1. In Boracay, I saw a black magic stall containing decapitated monkeys, birds, sharks, boars, and crocodiles, whose heads had been shoved onto the ends of sticks. Interesting, but expensive crystal necklaces were also on display, while the tattooed men in the stall had a shady vibe going on. It freaked me out a little. What I saw in that stall, and the explanation about Filipino shamans (witch doctors), their tools for black magic (dead, decapitated animals stuck onto sticks), and the strong belief in curses made me a tad uncomfortable. I’m well-travelled, but this wasn’t something that flew with me. I had a bad feeling about the place and left soon after I chatted to the men in the stall.
2. In Manila, your car will be stopped at the hotel, a dog will be unleashed to sniff it out for drugs, licenses will be checked, and mirrors will be placed beneath the vehicle to check for car bombs. Terrorism is a problem. You never know if the taxi you’re in will explode, but it’s enough of a possibility that men armed with machine guns will undertake these procedures every time you try to enter their grounds. This takes some getting used to.
I feel obligated to mention those last two parts, so you know exactly what to expect in the Philippines. The people are lovely, the cuisine flavoursome, and the beaches perfect, but it has a dark side, but not so dark that you can’t go on and have a great time, so long as you are aware of your surroundings.
Finally, I do sometimes hear people say that Boracay is too “touristy”. I’ve been to “touristy” places before, and while Boracay does accommodate for the full spectrum of traveller types, I don’t believe in any way it has detracted from the island’s culture, or the experiences it offers. It has a rustic ambivalence that reminds me of Koh Samui, Thailand – you can find what you want here, but the island doesn’t bend to please you. Instead, it exists proudly to offer you the perfect piece of genuine Filipino paradise, and that’s something you should embrace before full-blown tourism does destroy it.