Why visit the Philippines
Have you ever considered taking a vacation to Thailand? How about the Philippines? What images do those countries conjure in your mind? Thailand may remind you of Leonardo Di Caprio’s film, The Beach, specifically the idyllic views of Koh Phi Phi. Or you may think of the tsunami in 2009 that destroyed parts of Malaysia and several Thai islands and coastal areas. You may simply have thought, “It’s way too far, too foreign, I don’t have enough time, it’s too scary, and over… ‘there’.”
To be honest, there was nothing that specifically reminded me of the Philippines. Ok, maybe Imelda Marcos’ fascination with shoes, and a country formerly run by a dictator. I’ve traveled Asia quite a bit, and the Philippines was never one of those warm and fuzzy must-see destinations, so I understand where you are coming from.
I am flying to the Philippines tomorrow, and to be honest, I am quite nervous about going back. I had the most shocking trip of my life in 2011 when I went to Manila for work. While I was perched at a Hyatt hotel, the neighborhood was filthy, rundown and felt really dangerous. It was sticky, humid and rained much of the time. The drains were non existent so there were constant pools of mucky brown, stinking water to navigate.
Whatever you do, don’t forget to pack a light raincoat.
I think the clincher was the police escort of our bus each day to and from the conference venue, which left me feeling, frankly, freaked out. There had been an armed robbery on a bus full of tourists from Hong Kong the week earlier and they were now doing police escorts of buses transporting foreigners. Target, anyone?
The Shocking Reality of Manila
The reality is that the Philippines is a shockingly poor country. You see stark poverty next to shamefully luxurious hotels. One block from where I stayed in Manila was a dirty, filthy, semi-vacant lot with locals scrounging for whatever they could find, or simply to sleep under makeshift lean-twos. To see naked, filthy babies in the arms of young, but older siblings was beyond comprehension.
Across the street was a local hooker bar, and the girls would lean over the balcony whistling at the guys to come up and join them. Through my camera lens, I could see photos of the girls on the wall, and guys would come up, view the photos and take their pick, just like ordering off the menu at Denny’s. Just walking a few blocks to Starbucks left me feeling the need to clench my bags close to my body. And walking past armed guards standing in telephone-booth-like boxes on the way to the mall scared the shit out of me.
It all made me question why Manila was in such dire straights, particularly with the history of US military presence throughout this country. Maybe I just answered my own question. You just can’t help but feel unclean seeing all the unjust poverty in that sticky, disgusting city full of exhaust from old-style Jeepneys, which are like long ‘pimped-out’ pickup truck taxis where people cram in and hang off the back. You pay a modest price to ride or die underneath the wheels of another vehicle two inches behind you in that congested traffic! I couldn’t get my head around that city, let alone get excited about the 7000+ islands that make up The Philippines.
Returning to the Philippines
Never again, I said. Until now…
Now, I am returning of my own will. What the hell am I thinking? I’m attending another conference and I’m going alone, unlike the last time. The hesitation is real. Any rate, I booked a dirt-cheap ticket on Fly4Free from London to Manila for about $325 roundtrip. I swear if the flight wasn’t that cheap I wouldn’t be going, but something says I should give the Philippines another try.
Again, I’ve situated myself at 5* Western hotels recommended by the conference organizers because for as much travel as I’ve done in Asia, the hotel rating systems are not the same to European or American standards, particularly on an Asian-owned and operated level. A 5* Filipino hotel is not on the same level as western standards. That goes for much of Asia. I’ve worked in hospitality for 20 years. I know what I’m talking about. So with seven days in Manila, I will be busy, but I’m planning to stay another 11 days to explore…and give the Philippines another try. Am I kidding myself?
I’ve done my nerdy research on the most popular islands in the Philippines. I want to take a chance on a safe bet and those with positive reviews. I’m really hoping to find a place I’d enjoy coming back to. I dislike it when I have a crappy experience and it ruins any thought of returning.
Booked a trip to Boracay
Any rate, I booked a flight to probably the most well-known island, and seemingly the safest due to it’s tourist traffic, Boracay (pronounced borak-eye). This island is only a 50-min flight from Manila, so an easy trip if you’re on business, and looks beautiful. People rave about it for its natural beauty, the ease of island hopping, its white sand beaches, scuba diving, beautiful coral, snorkeling, adventure sports and crystal clear waters.
Coast Hotel Boracay
I’ve booked 3 nights at the Coast Hotel Boracay to give it a go and a review. It’s a big scuba diver island as are many of the islands. Boracay has a ton of hotels, but I am extremely surprised that the 4* and 5* hotels do not review well online. I read that some say the 5*’s should actually be 3*. Just my luck…! And they are not cheap!
Luckily, I found a steal of an airline deal from London to Manila, which allows me to splurge a bit on the hotels, but I’ve literally spent 4 days reading hotel reviews to see where to go after Boracay and I am at a loss. I’ve heard and read a lot about Palawan from someone who loves El Nido and the Philippines in general, but the hotel offerings are either on the backpacker-side or the super-wealthy where you simply don’t leave the resort. The thought of a ‘romantic table for one’ is not my style, nor do I currently think any hotel in the Philippines is worth €250 a night. Maybe I’m wrong. Hopefully the moral of this story is not to judge a book by its cover. I’ll let you know later. Wish me well…..