The Philippines – an archipelago of 7,107 beautiful islands in the warm tropics. It’s one of Asia’s best kept secrets, and one that has not been overrun by tourists who come to Asia from Europe and the Americas. The Philippines has been considered off the beaten track by most travellers to Asia, due to its geographical location being across the South China Sea from mainland Asia. Another factor that has caused the Philippines to be off the mainstream Southeast Asia circuit is the bad publicity that the country has gotten over the years. The negative publicity has been bad for tourism in the Philippines, however, it can be seen as good for those who want to experience a not-so-usual holiday in Asia.
Having 7,107 islands, there is no shortage of wonderful places and things to see in this tropical archipelago. I grew up in this country, and I have yet to finish exploring all the 7,107 islands. However, while I was living there, I had the opportunity to experience first hand some of the best that the country has to offer. Being a local, I had some advantages in getting around and experiencing some places that not many foreign tourists have managed to wander to. Here are some of the top ten things to see and do in the Philippines:
1.) The Islands and The Many White Sand Beaches
It is obvious that the number one attraction in the Philippines are its thousands of islands sprawled between the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. There are so many white sand beaches around the country that it is easy to lose count. The most famous of all the white sand beaches in the Philippines is on the island of Boracay. Boracay has been known for its 3km powder-fine white sand beach and a great place to either relax or party on til the wee hours of the morning. Other great islands to experience for beaches are Bantayan Island (near Cebu), White Beach in Puerto Galera, Camiguin Island, El Nido in Palawan, and Bohol.
The Spaniards colonised the Philippines for nearly 400 years and brought their festive traditions from Spain to these beautiful islands. Fiestas are abound in the Philippines, and each island or town/city would have its own unique celebrations, mainly in honour of a patron saint. It’s one of the biggest celebrations in each town’s events calendar and one not to be missed. The biggest and most popular fiesta in the Philippines would be the Sinulog in Cebu. This generally occurs on the 3rd week of January, and is celebrated to honour the patron saint Señor Santo Niño (the image of the Infant Jesus wearing a crown and holding a golden globe on one hand). People in Cebu would take to the streets to participate in the parade, and celebrations happen all over the island. Most locals would have parties and open their doors to any guests to have a feast. Another great fiesta is the Ati-Atihan in Kalibo on the province of Aklan. The locals paint themselves black to emulate their patron saint, the Señor Santo Niño. This generally happens around the same time as the Sinulog in Cebu, but it is worth checking out the colourful celebrations.
3.) Churches and Cathedrals
The Philippines is a predominantly Catholic country, thanks to the Spanish who had subjected the natives to be baptized and take the Catholic faith onboard. As a result, the Spanish built several cathedrals and churches across the islands. The Baroque architecture is very evident in many of these cathedrals and churches. One of the best churches to visit would be the San Agustin Cathedral in Intramuros in Manila. Another great place in the Philippines to check out nice cathedrals in the Philippines would be in Vigan, Ilocos Sur in the northern part of Luzon in the Philippines. Cebu is another place that has an abundance of these awesome Spanish churches, as Cebu is the first place that the Spaniards landed in the Philippines.
4.) Shopping Malls in Manila
It may come as a surprise to most people, but Filipinos are shopaholics, and they love to cool themselves in the shopping malls and escape the tropical heat that can be sometimes overwhelming. Some of the world’s biggest shopping malls are located in the Philippines. The SM Mall of Asia, built on the Manila Bay area, is the world’s third largest shopping mall, and is two times bigger than Edmonton Mall in Canada (which held the previous world record). Apart from the massive size of the shopping malls, there are a lot of great bargains to be had in the shops and markets around the country. When going to markets, it is advisable to negotiate the price with the vendors, as they are generally priced higher than what the item is worth.
5.) Tropical Rainforests
The tropical rainforests in the Philippines are fast diminishing. The poor farmers who are struggling in life and don’t own any land need for land to cultivate on, and the rainforests have been chopped down. On top of that, there are a lot of illegal loggers who chop down the trees for the lucrative logging industry. Conservation efforts have been in place, but because of the widespread poverty in certain areas, some people still cut the trees and burn the forests. There are many species of wildlife that are in danger of becoming extinct due to their habitats being destroyed. While there are still some rainforests left, it would be worth checking them out and exploring the lush jungles in the Philippines. The Philippine Eagle, the national bird, is one of the many endangered species living in these forests and they can be found predominantly in Mindanao, somewhere between Bukidnon and Davao.
6.) Exploring tribal culture
There are many different ethnic tribes in the Philippines. Many of them have settled in the islands long before the Spanish came to colonise these islands. The different ethnic tribes have very distinctive cultures and customs that have survived through the centuries. Most of the ethnic tribes in the Philippines live in the islands of Luzon, Palawan and Mindanao. The rest of the islands somehow have lost the indigenous population. Among the popular tribes are the Ifugao (in the Mountain Province in Luzon), the Badjao (in Sulu), the Tausug (in Mindanao), the Maranao (also in Mindanao) and the Aeta (in Luzon). There are many more to mention, but the first four tribes are well-known for their colourful costumes, dances, folklore and customs. The Aeta is unique in that they are widely regarded as the descendants of the very first inhabitants of the Philippines.
7.) Christmas celebrations
The Philippines is known to have one of the longest and most festive Christmas celebration in the world. You start noticing in October that Christmas carols are already being played occassionally in department stores and shops around the country. By the 1st of December, most Christmas decorations would be all out, and shops and houses would be decked out with very colourful Christmas regalia. The Belen (a diorama of the scene of the Nativity) is a very common sight during the holidays. The Catholic church starts its early morning vigil from the 16th of December all the way til Christmas, and the start of the early morning vigils is the actual start of the many feasts and parties that people go to in the leadup to Christmas Day.
8.) Holy Week/Easter Celebrations
Being a predominantly Catholic country, most of the festivities center around the church calendar. Lent (and/or Easter) is another celebration that Filipinos religiously celebrate (excuse the pun). The main highlight that would interest most tourists is the Good Friday penitence rites that some devotees perform in different parts of the country. In some cases, people devote themselves to be nailed on the cross (literally). Though this isn’t a sight for the faint-hearted, it is somehow an amazing fact that there are people who have vowed to do this ritual to cleanse their sins. Another ritual that has become a spectacle during Lent is the flaggelation. Devotees whip themselves on the back with bamboo-tipped burillos to reenact Christ’s suffering before he was crucified.
9.) Sampling Local Cuisine
Filipino food may not make it to mainstream cuisine like Thai, Indian, Chinese or Malaysian has, but it is an interesting mix of the various influences it has over the centuries. The best way to describe its nature is that it is a fusion of Spanish, Malay, Chinese and American cuisine. You get a range from grilled seafood and stews to paella, to pancit canton (stir-fried noodle, Canton style) and the Filipino spaghetti ( a variation of the American-style spaghetti). Each region in the Philippines would have its own local specialty, and it can vary vastly from town to town. Most of the dishes are not spicy, except for the Bicol Express, which is known to be the spiciest Filipino dish.
10.) Listening to a live band
The Filipinos are very musically oriented people. They have been known to be great entertainers around the world, gracing the stage in many nightclubs and lounge bars across different parts of the world. If you travel around Asia and sit in a bar with some live music, there is a high chance that the band is from the Philippines. Thus, listening to some live music in the many bars and restaurants across the country offers you a glimpse of the musical talents that Filipinos generally have, and their passion for music. You will also find that singing Karaoke is a national pastime, and it doesn’t matter if you have what it takes to belt out those notes. Everyone is very encouraging and supportive, and it’s all for the fun of it.
I hope I have enlightened you of the wonderful things that you must experience while in the Philippines. It may not be the most common tourist things to experience, but hey, that’s what traveling is all about..
Til the next Fabulous Journeys!