Tips for traveling to the Philippines
I had the opportunity recently to return to the Philippines for a conference, and sheepishly decided to give it another go. You can read my first post here about how I was dreading this trip, and vowed never to return. A month after the trip, with a lot of reflection, I have to admit, I am so glad I went back, and I literally can’t stop searching for return flights! I really do like giving a location at least two attempts before I say, “Ok, maybe this country is not for me.” And I am so glad I did.
My friend Nina put together a great list of tours and day trips to visit in Manila I wished I’d known about beforehand.
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Manila has made major improvements
The first time around, the Philippines, based on Manila, was a big dump. You could see poverty everywhere, you could smell it, you could feel it was unsafe. But this time around, I could not believe the change. I was literally blow away. There is so much development going on in Manila, and it’s a bit of a mess with construction, but obviously there is major foreign investment taking place, which is fantastic. It also appeared that someone learned how to use a broom. This time, the city was surprisingly clean, bushes and landscapes well-manicured, and you didn’t see as much trash or blatant poverty. I’m know it still exists, but it wasn’t in your face.
When in doubt, book a Western hotel brand you know!
Out of fear and convenience, I stayed at two of the conference hotels, which were western brands; the Conrad Hilton Manila and the Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila. Both 5*and in different areas than where I stayed previously. The hotels were both sleek and unique, and what you would expect, but it was the neighborhood in both that made the difference. Mind you, I stayed in Makati last time and that is a very wealthy district, but with the stark contrast of poverty just under your nose.
You can check prices and book the Conrad Hilton here.
Check here for prices at the Sofitel Philippine Plaza Manila.
Conrad Hilton – a great choice in Manila!
The Conrad Hilton is perched right on Manila Bay, across the street from the Bay Amusement park where you have the Philippine’s tallest ferris wheel. The park was busy day and night, and it was clear people had money to spend – on rides, dining out, shopping, enjoying themselves. The air felt ‘lighter’, more ‘happy’ this time.
The Conrad is also attached to S Maison, a luxury shopping center, that leads to the massive Mall of Asia, or MOA as it’s locally known, through a covered, elevated walkway, so you don’t even need to go out in the elements for retail therapy. It was quite a surprise to see such a luxurious mall and while new, I wondered who the patrons would be. They must have done their research, but it was a jaw-dropping change from five years ago. Super location if you want a shopping weekend. And the MOA is busy, so there’s safety in numbers.
They have done quite a bit of land reclamation to build new high-end, sky-rise condos. However, having expected the worst, I simply didn’t have the same fear as in 2011. Maybe I psyched myself out so much by expecting it to be even more degradated than before, but it wasn’t. It improved ten-fold.
Appreciate Manila’s Improvements
Yes, the roads are still slammed with cars, Jeepneys and 3-wheeled trike taxis, but the street were notable in better condition and cleaner. They’ve created new highways, repaved the roads and there was no litter about! An anti-littering law had been put into place in 2010, but when I was there in 2011, it appeared, ‘no one got the memo.’
Now, you will be fined in incremental amounts if you are caught littering. It applies to individuals as well as shops, so everyone appears to be on the bandwagon. The outsides of shops need to be maintained as well, so the curb appeal has really changed. The sidewalks were physically in better condition; not the usual ‘ankle-breaking’, uneven, broken sidewalks. Overall I was flabbergasted. Don’t get me wrong, you still have to stay alert, but the feeling was much different, particularly since I was expecting the worse.
Ride Safely in Manila with GrabCar
Manila has an Uber-version of a taxi system called, GrabCar and they are cheap, efficient and safe. You know the name of the driver, photo, make and licence of the car, and it’s registered in the system, so all well-monitored. This is much preferred to general taxis where you don’t know who you are with. In London, I always use a registered London Taxi, but in Manila, the GrabCar is safer.
Take a trip to one of the islands in the Philippines
I was in Manila seven days, then took my chances to stay another ten days to see beyond…. Would I regret it? Not one bit. I was considering either visiting El Nido or someplace else for a romantic honeymoon for one on the island of Palawan, Cebu or Boracay, which I heard was a ‘happening’ island. People also rave about the beautifully remote and quieter, Siquijor Island.
I made an excellent choice by going to Boracay Island, just a 50-minute flight from Manila. It’s better known as a dive destination, but if you need a quick getaway from the hustle and bustle, Boracay is the ticket. I planned to only stay three nights, then figure out where to go from there.
After day two, I decided I would remain on Boracay for another six nights to get to know it better. It felt safe, the Coast hotel where I stayed was new and lovely. That was probably the reason I chose to remain. Also, after day 2 all the staff at Coast knew my name! Later, I found out the GM is a former Hyatt guy, and being former Hyatt myself, I soon understood why I felt so welcomed and at home.
Stay in a new hotel in the Philippines
With all the development, new hotels are popping up all over the Philippines. Coast Boracay was one of the newest ones on Boracay. The staff were amazing, the services were exemplary, I felt extremely safe, the whole stretch of beach was clean white sand, and the water, crystal clear. I didn’t want to push my luck and felt spending a bit more time to get to know the island better was a better use of my time. Besides, having spoken to other conference attendees raving about other locations they had visited, I knew I would be coming back to the Philippines to explore more.
Check out prices to book Coast Boracay here.
Get to know the locals!
I generally have a chat with hotel staff. It’s polite and you feel like people are looking out for you. A place is also so much better with local perspective and I made friends with locals and foreigners alike who either stayed at the hotel or frequented the same restaurants/bars I did. I also like becoming a ‘local’ to a few establishments. That way you can more easily build a rapport with locals who will open up. I can also be a creature of habit and stick with what I feel is a good thing. I did splurge and rented a boat for a day on Boracay, which was well worth it and good value.
Boracay is not a big island so you can get from top to bottom in about 30 minutes in a trike depending on traffic, and you can walk from the beach on the west side to the beach on the east side in about 20 minutes at the narrowest point. I used a trike to get around to Puka Beach in the north, and the hotel shuttle took me around when they did not have guests arriving.
Give the Philippines a chance
In all, I had a splendid holiday on Boracay and was really happy I dared to give it another go. The people of the Philippines are such warm population. In fact, my first piano teacher was Filippina – she was also my Ph-Ed teacher! But it was really nice to connect with this country again and regain my faith in giving places a second chance.
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