Southeast Asia is filled with hidden gems but for me my favourite has to be The Philippines. Although its starting to become more popular, it still often gets overlooked when people are planning trips around to this part of the world. Nobody has really figured out yet just how wonderful The Philippines are, and some are wary because of the stigma about how dangerous it is (I felt more safe here than I did in Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia). Not to say that The Philippines are perfect (getting around wasn’t easy, and the food wasn’t exactly my favourite), but it’s definitely close.
As I just mentioned, traveling around wasn’t easy and it also wasn’t cheap. I tend to play things by ear and since most of our flights were booked somewhat last minute it ended up being the most expensive part of the trip. From Manila to Puerto Princessa was about 100 USD. The Philippines around like other parts of SE Asia where you can take a bus or train for cheaper- the only other option was a ferry that took 28 hours (I’m good thanks). From Puerto Princessa to the most popular
spot on the island, El Nido, was another 6-7 hour bus ride depending on whether you take the van or bus. I personally recommend the bus, the vans are quicker but they pack them tighter than the underground during rush hour so depends which is more important to you. So with only 11 days before we flew to Hong Kong was decided to stick with one island. Palawan seemed to have the most to do and came highly recommended by other bloggers so it seemed like our best bet.
We stayed at Outpost Beach Hostel which I can not recommend enough, apart from the fact they were undergoing construction but they are set to be done in April 2017. Best view I’ve ever had from a hostel and the staff makes you feel right at home. It’s about a 10 minute ride in a tricycle from the main part of town but personally I would much prefer staying on the beach to staying in town. The food was incredible (they hired a real Italian chef), and usually I’m not into eating western food in Asia but as I mentioned previously Philippine food is commonly agreed upon as not the best in Asia. In my experience it was either WAY to salty or WAY to sugary. I don’t know whats up with that but in all honesty in made a lot of the local food almost inedible. That being said, I had some of the best meals I’ve ever had in The Philippines (all of them were Western, most were Italian). Two of the best Italian meals we had when we were there were called Bella Vita and Altrove. Bella Vita has a really good continental breakfast and its right down the beach from Outpost, and Altrove was in town. There is always a massive line outside but it’s worth the wait.
We stayed in El Nido for 10 days which is more time than people spend there but we were still really sad to leave. There are so many boat tours to do, because there are so many islands. They break the tours up by putting the islands into categories A, B, C, D, E. Tours do combinations of these and you could be on a boat for 3 days and not even see all the islands El Nido has to offer,
and each one is more stunning than the last. Personally I would recommend making sure you see the big & small lagoon because you get to kayak which was really cool. Snake Island and Helicopter island were beautiful as well. The ONLY place in all of El Nido I wouldn’t recommend is Secret Beach. For anyone who has been to Maya Bay in Thailand where The Beach was filmed, this is where it was actually based on and it is somehow even more crowded than Maya Bay. Probably one of the worst kept secrets ever. But the best thing to do is get a group together and hire your own boat for the same price and they can just take you to the places with the least people. On the first tour we did we had lunch on a beautiful island (never found out the name) and not one single boat joined us the whole afternoon. This is the significant difference between The Philippines and Thailand- it’s just as beautiful, but not too many people have figured that out.
Another cool thing to do while in El Nido is to see the waterfalls. If you’re comfortable on a bike the ride is about 45 minutes and the views are amazing. You get to see where the people of Palawan live and the children playing at school. There are 5 waterfalls in total and it’s a good way to spend the day as there are places to jump into the water and they are also very refreshing, definitely worth a visit.
On our way back to Puerto Princessa for our flight we stopped for two days in Port Barton. I can not recommend this place enough. Absolutely adorable and so beautiful, Port Barton has almost no tourists at all. We stayed at a family run place right on the beach for 10 dollars a night. Only downside would be that the electricity only ran from 530-11pm but it didn’t really make that big of a difference for us. At night we were invited to the beach to watch a movie with all the local kids that was being projected onto a building and we already felt like part of their little community. The best meal I’ve ever had in Asia (and maybe ever), was at a small Italian run pizzeria type place right down the street from where we were staying called Gorgonzola, ask any local where the good Italian place is and they’ll point you straight there. They hand-make all the pasta right in front of you and the sauces were absolutely incredible. We ate 6/6 meals in Port Barton there and would have continued to eat there if we’d stayed longer.
Last stop was Manila and it was more of a travel hub than anything. We went a little above our budget to get a nice place with wifi, and just rested for a day. We did manage to see Old Town which was nice but Manila is definitely not a must-do if you aren’t a city person. We went to the mall next to Trump Tower, and there was a food court at the top that had some really good western options and the view of the city from the top wasn’t bad either.
Other random helpful info about The Philippines:
It’s cheap. Water averages out at about .40 cents and most meals at about 4 USD depending where you go. Again, the only thing we found expensive was transportation. Accommodation is pretty similar but definitely cheaper to most places in SE Asia, a nice private room would usually average out at about 30-35 USD per person if there are two of you, but if you’re really low on cash you can find dorms for 5-10 per person. Pukka hostel right next door to Outpost is good for private rooms and they make a great banana pancake. The bus from Puerto Princessa to El Nido was about ten dollars so transportation in general isn’t expensive- just flights. Tricycle rides are about 1 USD for a 10 minute drive they will try and charge your more but you just have to be adamant that you know that’s what it costs. Sometimes I just pay what they ask but I’m stubborn so I always make sure they know that I know I’m being played.
Other places to visit:
Coron- Definitely sounds like it’s worth the trip if you have more time, its a 7 hour ferry trip from El Nido, and it sounds like a great place to go diving.
Cebu- Another place we would have loved to go but it would have cost about 150 extra and we didn’t have an abundance of time. The waterfalls are incredible but beware of the whale shark diving if you care about the environment because its’ a tourist trap and it has messed with the migration patterns of the whales.
Boracay- This was initially on our list but apart from difficulties getting there we also heard a lot of negative reviews. It seems to be the only places in The Philippines that is said to be overly touristy. It’s touristy because the beaches are beautiful but I talked to many tourists who said there are beaches just as beautiful but not so overrun and crowded. By the sounds of it, Boracay resembles the Phi Phi islands a bit so its perfect for someone looking for constant partying and big crowds.
The most popular mode of transportation for short distance and definitely the cheapest, tricycles are basically just a motorbike attached to a cart. Sometimes they are only attached by a zip tie so its a miracle they even stay in one piece. They comfortably fit 4 people but I’ve seen families of 8 so just depends how comfortable the guy is (or how badly he wants the money).They all sound like they’re on the verge of breaking down but for a dollar split between 3 people I’d take just about anything. They move pretty slowly but all in all they get the job done.
My personal experience was that it was better off to just not even try. Every now and then you could get a good connection but the whole of the island hasn't really gotten up to date with wifi, which personally I think was kind of a relief. Getting away from screens for awhile was a nice break and a lot of the time we just left our phones at the hostel for the day. The only problem was when we needed to book flights and it could be a bit frustrating but messenger worked well so we often had other people do it for us. I do think they are starting to get up to date with it because so many people depend on wifi so I would guess that in the next few months it will be much better.
Because of the war on drugs here people tend to worry about how dangerous it is but there is only one piece of advice you need to follow in The Philippines: don't do drugs. Most people I spoke to that live here wont even go near a joint. The stories of people who get shot in the streets “for no reason” by authorities are all shot because of drugs. That is the only thing that sets it apart from the rest of SE Asia as far as safety, people get robbed and bad stories circulate around hostels but the same goes for any place. I’ve had more issues with safety in Europe than I have Asia so it just comes down to making smart decisions and sometimes luck (or lack thereof).
There are over 7,000 islands that make up the country so to see all there is to see in The Philippines it would probably take a lifetime but locals say to see the good stuff you would need about 6-8 weeks. In my opinion now is a great time to go, especially to Palawan, because its touristy enough that there are good hostels, restaurant and tours, but not so touristy so that all of those places are too crowded.