Typhoons & turtles: A month travelling in the Philippines

Deciding to work in China wasn’t only an opportunity to travel around China itself, but also to see some more of Asia. One place that had constantly been filling my Instagram feed with stunning pictures was the Philippines, a place that had been high on my list of places to visit for some time. We knew that we would have plenty of time at Christmas and Chinese New Year to travel, two months in fact, so what better time to book a flight to the Philippines, and get some winter sun. Now I know what you’re thinking why would you leave China at Chinese New Year? Well the answer is simple – literally EVERYONE in China travels at this time, making it insanely busy everywhere, and tickets for planes and trains are sold out weeks in advance. So once we had our holiday dates confirmed we booked a month in the Philippines. Glorious beaches here we come!

While doing my research I read many websites and blogs comparing the Philippines to Thailand. I had been to Thailand a few years ago, so I was beginning to have more of an idea of what to expect – lots of white sandy beaches, but with less gap year students, as the Philippines was not on the main backpacker route.

Even though we had a month there, we decided not to add lots to our itinerary, instead we would visit a handful of islands and not rush around. On our trip we met lots of other travellers who were only spending a few nights in each place and they were telling us how tiring it was hopping from one island to the next, so we felt lucky that we had time to actually relax.

So, how did we find travelling around Philippines…

Where we stayed

I think the biggest shock we had in the Philippines was how expensive the accommodation was. When I travelled in Thailand I remember staying in private beach huts right by the ocean for as little as £3-4 a night with breakfast more often or not included in the price. However, this was not the case in the Philippines. We stayed in a range of accommodation types, from 20 bed dorm rooms to private ensuite doubles and beach huts.

Most places do not include breakfast, if they do you can expect a plate of filipino food which usually consists of rice, corned beef (which is actually pretty nice) and eggs, or maybe they will have some sort of continental breakfast for Western guests. Then again, some of the cheapest accommodation we stayed in provided some of the nicest breakfasts, made up of pancakes and fresh fruit, it just depends. Dorm rooms are usually around £7 a night and double room in a hostel is around £15 a night. The average price for a private double room in a 3* hotel is around £30-£45 a night, resorts are significantly more. This may not sound like a lot for a holiday, but a month travelling and this soon adds up. We were also travelling on a Chinese wage so we had to be careful with how much we were willing to spend per night.

Most accommodation will not have hot water, which took some getting used to, especially when you love a hot shower as much as I do. Our very first shower experience was a barrel of cold water and a bucket so you could chuck the water over you. After the initial shock, I actually quite liked being splashed with cold water in the morning, nothing wakes you up quicker, that’s for sure.

Another thing we discovered was that you always need to pre-book, sometimes days in advance. It might have been because we were travelling at a busy time, but there were a couple of occasions where we had not booked a place to stay and we then had to waste time (sometimes hours) trying to find a place within our budget to stay. Pre-booking accommodation can sometimes be frustrating and you end up losing the freedom to change your plans at the last minute, but this is better than turning up in Cebu City at 4am and spending three hours trying to find a place, after being told by the locals that everywhere is sold out. Luckily we found somewhere just round the corner from where we were frantically searching, win!

The weather

Before we decided to travel to the Philippines we made sure that it was not rainy season, according to numerous websites we were choosing to visit at one of the best times, between December and February. However, the weather in the tropics can be somewhat unpredictable. As we arrived on Siargao Island, a place we had chosen for it’s laid-back surf vibes and a place we had planned on doing absolutely nothing but lounging about on beautiful beaches, we saw Mother Nature at her worst. Days and days of torrential rain, flooding and power cuts, this was definitely the less glamorous side of the Philippines.

It was on Siargao that we experienced our very first typhoon. We knew it was coming, we had been following the tropical depression as it made its way straight over us. Throughout the day it was raining hard, so we stayed in our dorm room and watched some films, but hunger ensued and we decided to venture out. Our room mates (Filipinos) had told us to get food asap as the power would no doubt go out soon, and as it wasn’t raining we decided to leave and grab a bite to eat. We went to a local curry house and as soon as we sat down the wind picked up and the rain started. The curry house was basically a straw hut on the side of the road and as the shutters came down and the lights went out, and bits of palm tree were being blown into our dinner, we knew the typhoon was here. We had spent the entire day in one of the only concrete buildings on the island, and soon as we were sat in a straw hut, the storm decided to hit… tropical typical! We didn’t fancy staying here the whole night, and as we were thinking about making a run for it an Australian with a moped offered to drive us back to our hostel. As we stepped outside we could feel the full force of the storm, it was kind of exciting. The next morning we saw the mess that the storm had left, places were flooded with muddy water, there were trees in the road and there was still no electricity.

So whatever time you decide to visit the Philippines you can never quite tell what the weather will bring to the table. But, when the sun shines, it really is paradise!

The food

After being in China for a few months we had become a little tired of Chinese food, as tasty as it is. Before we left for the Philippines we were dreaming about grilled fish straight out of the ocean and delicious bowls of juicy fresh fruit. However, our foodie Filipino dreams did not really come true. Don’t get me wrong we did have the odd amazing meal, where the food was to die for, but it was not as frequent as we had hoped.

We often found in restaurants that we needed to have at least three or four options of things we would like from the menu, because they didn’t have our first option. The first option usually being fish. The ocean was right there, we could see it, yet the majority of the restaurants didn’t have fish, say what? We did manage to have one extremely delicious fish meal and that was in Cebu City on Mactan Island, the place was called Lantaw Floating Fish Restaurant – we treated ourselves to a bottle of white wine and we devoured several plates consisting of Tuna belly, garlic shrimp, scallops, and a plate of spinach laced with garlic. From the restaurant you can also see the whole of Cebu City as you sit outside on a jetty surrounded by pretty fairy lights, it’s very romantic and not too expensive.

A side from the food we drank our body weight in mango smoothies and fresh coconut water, also beer is cheaper than a bottle of cola in most places too. The most delicious mangoes I have ever tasted were in Moalboal, they were so perfectly juicy and ripe.

Hands down one of the best places we ate and the most reasonably priced was Mama’s Grill on Siargao Island. We had driven past it a few times on our bike and every night it was packed with people, so we decided to check it out. We booked a table, but even though it was busy, there were tables free. When you arrive make sure you grab a table, then head to the people grilling at the front and tell them what meat and fish you want. They have an amazing selection, we went two nights and we tried the swordfish and tuna steak, vegetable kebabs, chorizo and chicken wings. After you have a sizeable amount of meat and fish for them to grill you need to choose your seasoning, we opted for sweet and spicy, and it was perfect! It was seriously one of the best grills I’ve ever eaten, and for around 480 pesos (£8) for the two of us, including a beer or two, I can’t recommend it enough.

The people

We had been told that Filipinos are extremely friendly people, and for the most part they were. At the airport they all greet you with a smile and are happy to help you. But, like most places there are people who just see you as a rich Westerner and they will try and rip you off. The tricycle drivers are the worst for this, they will appear to be the most helpful people in the world and will do anything to help you, including buying ferry tickets for you after they have driven you to the port. This happened to us and our driver asked us to give him money and he went to buy our tickets. When he came back with a small amount of change my instinct told me something wasn’t right and I checked with a group of local guys how much they had paid for their tickets, it was then clear that our driver had pocketed our money, claiming the ticket was more. After confronting him he gave us our money back, but he’ll no doubt try it again.

We met some lovely Filopino people on our trip and the little children we met were the cutest. It was so nice to see them playing in the street or on the beach, making up games with each other and being happy with very little.

We really enjoyed our time in the Philippines, but it wasn’t exactly what we had both expected. Our picture-perfect views of secret lagoons, were not so secret, and were packed with thousands of people. The cost of travelling here was significantly more than we had imagined and I think it will struggle to compete with the likes of Thailand for being backpacker/budget friendly. Having said that, we found some incredibly beautiful beaches and sunsets, we saw turtles and swam with whale sharks and had lots of awesome adventures together!

My top tips for travelling in the Philippines

  • Plan your itinerary and do your research before you book your first flight. As much as it’s great to be spontaneous and go where the Filipino wind takes you, we spent way more on flights because we thought we had to fly in and out of Manila, but there are airports on all the main islands.
  • If you’re on a budget, make sure you have a separate budget for internal flights. We thought we could get ferries between the islands (pretty dumb when you actually look at a map, haha) and some of the flights are quite expensive.
  • No matter what type of place you are staying in, I would recommend you have ear plugs. One thing you’ll notice is that Filipinos like to keep cockerels, not for pets, but for cock fights (try and avoid stumbling across one of these if you can).
  • Don’t always book your excursions through your hostel/hotel they will often charge a lot more than somewhere just down the road.
  • Always read the reviews for the places that you stay, we found that more often than not they were correct. You don’t want any unpleasant surprises.
  • You will do lots of island hopping where you will have endless opportunities to snorkel. If you’re in the Philippines for a while, it might be worth investing in your own snorkel and water shoes.
  • Don’t forget that you need a visa in the Philippines if you want to stay for more than 30 days. We were there for 33 days and forgot to get a visa and we had to pay a fine of around £80 each, oops!
  • Always ask someone from your hotel or hostel how much you should pay for a tricycle or taxi, that way you know if they are trying to rip you off.
  • Download MAPS.ME before you set off and download the relevant maps for the places that you will be exploring as WiFi on the islands doesn’t always work, so knowing where you’re going when you’re offline is a life saver.
  • If you decide to visit Coron, I would recommend you take the ferry that takes 4 hours – this will be air condidtioned and slightly more expensive around £26 one way. We took the cheaper ferry from El Nido to Coron (the other one had sold out) which takes around 6 hours and most people either ended up with sun stroke or were throwing up the entire way, this one costs around £19 one way.

Stay tuned for more of the Philippines on my blog soon.

>>>Postcards from the Phillipines

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